HOMESTEAD (CBSMiami/CNN) - Three Democratic congresswomen were denied access to a government-run center shelter in Homestead that housing migrant children.
"We have been told by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, well really, indirectly, by the center director who works for the contractor that is contracted by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, that we will be denied access to this facility which is in violation of federal law," said
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
The congresswoman said this is history repeating itself. She pointed out that a year ago, this facility reopened and began housing children intercepted at the border.
"When Senator Bill Nelson and I tried to get in to see how these children were being cared for, we were then inexplicably denied access. To ensure that this access was never denied or interfered with again, I passed a bipartisan law that was signed by President Trump that prohibits blocking members of Congress from inspecting these facilities," she said.
Wasserman Schultz, along with Reps. Donna Shalala and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, wanted to tour the facility after the government announced last week that the center will expand its capacity to 3,200 beds from 2,350 beds.
"That amounts to a more than 140 percent increase in beds in just four months. Last Wednesday, my office notified HHS, in compliance with the law, no notification is required by the way but we gave them multiple days notice, that we would inspect this facility the following week. The reasons are obvious. In addition to the planned expansion, we've had troubling reports on the existing lack of staff, space, and educational resources along with other concerns, namely that the children are being housed here entirely too long," said Wasserman Schultz.
"As members of Congress, it is essential that we see for ourselves what these conditions are and conduct the constitutionally mandated oversight that we are obligated to provide. The Department of Health and Human Services is violating federal law by denying us entry today," she added.
The Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement no laws were being broken and the congresswomen were denied access due to its policy.
"To ensure a facility visit does not interfere with the safety and well-being of our [children], we require a minimum two-week notification at the convenience and availability of the facility. This has been policy since 2015," the HHS statement said.
Regarding the law requiring members of Congress have access, an HHS official said this: "It meets our current statutory obligation to provide members of Congress with facility access. Indeed, most members of Congress who have sought tours this year have worked with us collaboratively and without objection to schedule tours under the policy."
Wasserman Schultz said the statute covering access to facilities has no time requirement nor does it allow HHS to impose one.
"The reason the facility requires notice is not to make sure they are prepared, its to make sure that they can clean it up and make it look all nice and pretty rather than let us see what is truly going on there on a day to day basis," said Wasserman Schultz.
Mucarsel-Powell, whose district includes the facility, was able to tour it last February with Shalala as part of a congressional delegation. She said some of the things she saw were troubling.
"The last time I was here and visited the center and spoke with the kids, I shared with you the troublesome conditions that they are in. They are being housed in one area in particular with 144 bunk beds with numbers next to their bunk beds. I saw kids that really don't understand why they are being locked up. Now that the Trump administration has announced that they were increasing the number of children, inhumanely, locked up at this facility from 2,350 to 3,200. These are not criminals. These are children," said Mucarsel-Powell.
The congresswoman said when she visited last time, she was told that the average a child stayed at the facility was for 60 days.
"This length will inevitably increase as Homestead's resources are being stretched. At this point it's unclear what new structures or accommodations are being made to adequately house the additional children," said Mucarsel-Powell.
Shalala pointed out that with the increase there will be more children held at the facility than who attend Homestead High School.
"The students of Homestead High School wake up with their families and they leave school and go home to their families. That's what we want for every single one of these children. This facility ought to be a short term facility, we need to get these children in safe homes, preferably with relatives, preferably with their parents, and we know how to do it," said Shalala. "There's no question that we know how to get these children on to families and safe homes. We've been doing this in our country for a very long period of time."
"This is in our backyard. It's in Debbie's district but it's my district too as long as these children are being held hostage in our community," she added.
Wasserman Schultz said when they get back to Washington they plan to take legal action against the shelter for denying them access.
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