HOMESTEAD, Fla., SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. (Reuters) - For a growing number of migrant children, this is their first home in America: a sprawling campus dotted with beige buildings, massive white tents and metal trailers, next door to a U.S. Air Force base.
The federal government is holding nearly 1,600 migrant children here, at what it calls a “temporary influx” shelter. It has added 250 beds in the last two months and could soon house 2,350 children who crossed the nation’s southern border on their own.
It is the country’s only such temporary quarters for migrant children, after the closure last month of a similar facility in south Texas, and the only shelter for migrant youths that is run by a for-profit company.
The site is a topic of heated debate, as immigration advocates and Democratic legislators complain many traumatized children who fled violence and poverty in their home countries are held in an institutionalized setting for too long before being released to sponsoring families who can better care for them.
Government officials say they are trying to safely release children to family members as fast as they can, and that the facility provides the first experience of stability that the children have had after long and often perilous journeys northward.
Their arduous journeys are not necessarily over: Some of the children will gain asylum, which can take years; others will be deported.
As the government seeks to rapidly expand the site’s capacity, it has waived a federal requirement at Homestead meant to ensure children receive sufficient health care. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which cares for the children, previously required Homestead to maintain a clinician-to-child ratio of 1 to 12 to provide mental health services, according to a November 2018 report. But that requirement has been relaxed to 1 to 20, a Homestead program director said on Wednesday.
The facility sits on federal property, and unlike established children’s shelters, such as smaller group or foster homes that hold migrant children across the country, is not governed by state child welfare regulations designed to protect youngsters from harm.
On this day, as a steady rain poured down, children wearing clear plastic ponchos walked in single file lines around the grounds, attended by shelter staff. Some waved and yelled greetings in English and Spanish to visiting reporters.
The Trump administration opened the Homestead site’s doors to media on condition that reporters not interact with children or photograph or record them inside, which they said was to protect children’s privacy.
For these youths, aged 13-17, school is held in large white tents divided into small classrooms. Their instructors are not required to be certified teachers but must have a bachelor’s degree and speak English and Spanish.
The younger children sleep in rooms with six sets of bunk beds each. Seventeen-year-olds, who are housed separately, sleep in large, long “bays” with 144 beds each. The older children use toilet stalls in an attached tent.
In recreation areas near the beds were games of dominoes, Jenga, and Parcheesi. Outside, kids can play soccer, volleyball and basketball on the palm-dotted campus.
Inspirational slogans and other art work by the children decorate building walls, including a drawing of Martin Luther King, Jr. with the words “I have a dream” written in Spanish. Another sign atop a doorway says, “Through These Doors Walk the Greatest People in the World!” in English.
The facility was first opened during the Obama administration, but immigration rights advocates say the Trump administration has stranded children there for longer periods by making it more difficult for them to be released to sponsors, usually parents or close relatives.
They say youngsters have been there for months, one of them for more than eight.
Officials say the children spend an average of 67 days at Homestead before they are released.
About 35 miles south of Miami, the facility is run by Comprehensive Health Services, Inc., a private, for-profit company with a growing line of business in housing immigrant children. In a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission last year, the firm’s parent company, Caliburn International Corp., noted President Donald Trump’s immigration policies were driving “significant growth.”
It costs approximately $250 per day to house a migrant child at a standard, permanent shelter, said Mark Weber, an HHS spokesman. But at an influx facility like Homestead, the cost is triple that - around $750 per day. It is covered by American taxpayers.
Democrats in Congress introduced a bill in December that would ban the use of unlicensed temporary emergency shelters for unaccompanied minors, arguing that stays at the shelters can re-traumatize children.
In 2014, record numbers of children crossed the border and were held at Border Patrol stations in the southwest for days longer than the 72 hours allowed by law, he said. (That limit applies to how long children can be kept in Border Patrol custody – not HHS custody, as at Homestead.)
A lawsuit filed in January on behalf of migrant children by immigrant rights groups accuses HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement of instituting “opaque and arbitrary” bureaucratic hurdles as it processes the release of the children.
One Guatemalan boy, identified only as E.A.R.R., entered the United States in July 2018 and was held at Homestead for five months, according to the suit. His father applied to be his sponsor in July, and fulfilled myriad requirements set by caseworkers, such as giving the boy a separate room and even moving at one caseworker’s request, the suit alleges. His son was released shortly after the lawsuit was filed.
“At one point, E.A.R.R. suffered from a headache so severe that he broke out in screams, and was taken to a hospital,” the suit said. “He has become anxious and depressed and has begun mental health treatment and medication.”
While some of the children detained in federal facilities over the past year were separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border as part of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy on illegal immigration, most crossed alone, often planning to reunite with a parent or close relative.
The number of unaccompanied children crossing the border is not out of line with previous years, but children are spending far longer in federal custody, government data show. The average length of stay for migrant children in HHS custody for the first four months fiscal 2019 was 89 days, compared to 60 days in fiscal 2018 and 41 days in fiscal 2017, according to HHS data.
As of Feb. 13, 11,500 children were in HHS custody, down from a record of nearly 15,000 in mid-December, partly because of a change in fingerprinting policy — but still it was nearly 80 percent higher than a year ago, the data show.
“We don’t think most of these kids need to be detained at all,” said Mary Bauer, deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project. “These are kids who have for the most part loving family members who want them.”
Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati in Homestead, Fla., and Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; Editing by Julie Marquis and Marla Dickerson