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As Candidates Are Denied Access To Homestead, Officials Say They Are Welcome With Pre-Approval

Lily Oppenheimer
Senators Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand try to get into the Homestead shelter for unaccompanied migrants on Friday, June 28, 2019.

2020 Democratic presidential candidates have been converging on the Homestead shelter for migrant children this week.On Friday, several more tried to get in after Thursday night’s debates at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center.

Unsurprisingly, they were barred from touring the inside. Those included South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former U.S. Housing Secretary Julián Castro, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and author Marianne Williamson. U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, D-Miami, also was there, along with Miami-Dade Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, who is running for county mayor.

Despite the law known as the Flores settlement,  which limits the amount of time children can be held in federal detention to 20 days, many of the over 2,000 detained children at Homestead have been there for several months.

Outside Homestead, Harris discussed serving on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, and described the Department of Health and Human Services’ consistent lack of transparency and accurate information about nationwide detention centers. 

“Repeatedly I have asked them to give us information about the thousands of complaints of sexual abuse that have occurred within these HHS facilities,” Harris said. 

She said Congress has a constitutional duty and responsibility to conduct oversight over the Homestead facility. 

“So we are seeing a breakdown, not only of our moral values, but a breakdown of our democracy,” she said. 

Caliburn International- the overarching company that operates the Homestead shelter - did release a statement this week in response to the Democratic presidential candidates repeatedly being denied from going inside. 

“Visitors to the Homestead temporary emergency shelter are welcome but they must first register with HHS for clearance and approval, a process which can take up to 14 days,” a Caliburn spokesperson said.

“The Homestead facility is fully transparent, allowing visitations from religious groups, congressional delegations, local government groups, consular officials and the media that have secured HHS or prior approval.”

Credit Lily Oppenheimer / WLRN
Miami-Dade Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, a candidate for county mayor, hugs children from the Homestead Latinx organization, WeCount, outside the Homestead detention center on Friday, June 28, 2019.

Harris also took a minute to speak with organizer Guadalupe de la Cruz, who works with the Homestead Latinx immigrant and farmworker organization, WeCount.

"I'm really hoping the candidates are here to intentionally find out what's going on behind this detention center," she said. "I'm hoping this is not something that they're just using for their advantage, to gain points."

De la Cruz led Harris and other candidates over to children who talked about their undocumented parents, and the fear they live in every day that one day they will be separated from their families. With a constant presence outside the Homestead shelter, de la Cruz said sometimes, they are able to climb a ladder and wave to the detained children inside the shelter. 

"You see the little time they have to be playful ... it's heartbreaking," she said. "That's the only time they have to be children." 

As flocks of reporters and activists wrestled to get to the front of the podium, Buttigieg talked about what they asked Homestead officials at the gates.

“We asked about the sleeping conditions of the children, and they said, the ones that are in a room, there’s six to a room,” Buttigieg told reporters. “So they’re better off than the ones that are in a bay.” 

He asked Homestead officials what a "bay" was. 

“More than 100 people in a room — 2,700 children, many of whom have people waiting for people to take them in, and many who have family members ready to accommodate them.”

Buttigieg also said that as long as there are for-profit detention centers licensed in this country, a motive to lock people up, we will see more of this. 

“Let us not rest until we can say with absolute certainty that this is America’s last for-profit child prison,” he said.

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