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'Difficult to watch': House Democrats tour housing for migrant children

"I did not see criminals, I did not see gang members. I saw kids who have hope that this country will welcome them,” Rep. Mucarsel-Powell, D-Fla., said.
Image: Migrant children
Immigrant children outside a temporary shelter in Homestead, Florida, in June.Brynn Anderson / AP file

MIAMI — A delegation of House Democrats on Tuesday toured one of the largest facilities in the country housing unaccompanied migrant children — a visit one representative called “chilling.”

The Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Migrant Children, about 25 miles southwest of Miami, is under scrutiny because it is the only one in the U.S. run by a for-profit corporation and, as a federal facility, it is not subject to state regulations.

Several Democratic lawmakers have called for shuttering facilities such as Homestead, citing the lack of oversight and the length of time that children are held.

The delegation included Reps. Joaquin Castro, chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and Sylvia Garcia, both of Texas, and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Donna Shalala, both of Florida.

Image: Congressional Hispanic Caucus Visits Shelter For Unaccompanied Migrant Children
From left, Rep. Donna Shalala, D-FL, Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, D-FL, and Rep. Sylvia Garc?a, D-TX greet people after touring the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Migrant Children facility in Homestead, Florida on February 19, 2019.Joe Raedle / Getty Images

“As a mother it was very difficult to watch. It has a prison-like feel,” Mucarsel-Powell said.

The facility is in her district and is operated by a private company for the Department of Health and Human Services.

"What I did not see — and this is a message for the Trump administration — I did not see criminals, I did not see gang members. I saw kids who have hope that this country will welcome them," Mucarsel-Powell said.

She spoke to one young girl who had been at the facility for nine months after being separated from her aunt crossing the border.

There were 1,575 children ages 13 to 17 at the Homestead facility,The Associated Press reported last week, describing a population count seen on a screen at the facility's command center. DHS said in December it would be adding 1,000 beds to the shelter.

Shalala called the system unacceptable and said it was why society got rid of orphanages years ago. She said the term “unaccompanied” is too narrow. “If you don’t come with a parent, but you come with an aunt, an uncle, a cousin, or a brother, you’re defined as unaccompanied.”

She said she is concerned about unaccompanied children who do not have relatives in the United States. When they become adults and age out of the facilities, they are taken in shackles, “basically to a prison. And what happens to them afterward, you do not want to know," Shalala said.

"This was a chilling experience, not because the staff that works here isn't trying to do the best for the children, but because the system itself is unacceptable," Shalala said. "It's unacceptable to put children in these kinds of situations for a very long period of time."

Castro, who has visited other facilities that hold migrant children and families and has been critical of some of them, said the Trump administration's policy of separation and extended detention of immigrant families and children "is all part of a morally bankrupt system.”

“The young boys and girls we visited in Homestead today are the very ones on which Donald Trump has made his political career,” Castro said.

Garcia said this was the fourth facility she had toured and did not see anything to justify spending $750 per child per day, as Homestead does, versus some that spend about $250 per day.

Last week, journalists were given a glimpse of the facility. Comprehensive Health Services Inc., which runs the facility, has hired 230 employees and received 225 more children since December when federal officials announced the expansion.

New federal requirements call for more thorough background checks on families, and that has slowed the children’s release to family members.

According to The Associated Press, the Florida Department of Children and Families has said that it has no jurisdiction over or involvement with children at Homestead because it is a federal facility.

Suzanne Gamboa contributed reporting from Austin, Texas.