MIAMI (CBSMiami) - United States Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar is responding to critics concerned over the health and safety of migrant children.
"There's been a lot of factual misrepresentations or just ignorant statements made about Homestead and frankly the broader program that we run," he told CBS News in an exclusive interview Friday.
For the first time, CBS network cameras were allowed inside the Homestead facility for children who crossed the border.
"Saying prisons or detention facilities, these are shelters. Child welfare shelters. Homestead is a child welfare shelter where we are trying to take care of these kids and place them out as quickly as possible," Azar said.
The response comes after the Democratic presidential debates in Miami.
Before and after the debate, a number of candidates visited the Homestead Migrant Children Detention Facility. A group of hopefuls visited on Friday.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell called on the candidates to join her at the facility. On Friday morning, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Governor John Hickenlooper, Senator Kamala Harris and Secretary Julián Castro arrived along with Mucarsel-Powell.
Mucarsel-Powell was the first to address the protesters outside of the shelter. She said they entered the facility, but were denied entry. Still, she said she has hope.
"I want to thank the presidential candidates that joined me here this morning, showing us, showing Miami, showing South Florida that they care about the issues that are affecting us the most. The priority of the safety of our children should be the priority of anyone who takes the White House. What we have seen from this administration are cruel policies that must stop. I have hope this morning and I have had hope, meeting everyone throughout these past few months, because I know that their hearts are in the right place and I know that they are here showing all of us that they care about what happens in Miami, what happens in Homestead," said Mucarsel-Powell.
WATCH U.S. REP. MUCARSEL-POWELL'S REMARKS AT THE FACILITY:
Sen. Gillibrand, was the first of the presidential candidates to speak.
"This is about children. I cannot tell you how angry it makes me when you lock up a child and deny them the time they need to play outside, the time they need to be with loved ones and family members," said Sen. Gillibrand. "This administration has no humanity. What will it take for President Trump to have an ounce of compassion. What will it take for the Republican Party to have an inch of spine? I can't tell you, because we have not seen it."
WATCH SEN. GILLIBRAND'S REMARKS AT THE FACILITY:
Mayor Buttigieg took the podium next. He made a statement in Spanish, saying the children and their families came here looking for the 'American Dream' and to escape the violence in their home countries, so the American people must support them.
"We have a moral obligation to support them. We went into that facility and requested the opportunity to see what is going on there," said Buttigieg. "And we were told no, we were told sorry, we were told somebody had to place a phone call to somebody somewhere in Washington. You and I paid for this place, what is being done in that building is being done in our name and with our money. It is wrong! But if it is our tax money, if it is our country, then it is our obligation to bring about something different and that's what we are here to do. We will say no more to prisons for children."
WATCH MAYOR BUTTIGIEG'S REMARKS AT THE FACILITY:
Sen. Harris, who grabbed a lot of attention during Thursday night's Democratic Debate, followed Buttigieg.
"They are children who have fled, most of them, the murder capitals of the world. They are children who have arrived at our shore, at our border, seeking safety, seeking refuge, seeking security and we pride our selves on the strength of our nation," said Harris. "Well, part of the strength of our nation is supposed to be that we have strong arms which will embrace and protect anyone fleeing or facing harm.
WATCH: JIM DEFEDE'S REMARKS ON THE SITUATION:
Sen. Harris also criticized the Trump Administration and the U.S. government, saying the treatment of these children "is not reflective of who we are" and calling the lack of information about what goes on in the camp a "breakdown" of the morals and democracy of the United States.
WATCH SENATOR HARRIS' REMARKS AT THE FACILITY:
Gov. Hickenlooper, from Colorado, was the next speaker. He used his home state as an example of a "template" that could be used for the entire country to follow on how to handle facilities like the one in Homestead. He said in Colorado, they have always required that a private facility of detention, especially one holding children, should have "higher requirements of transparency."
Hickenlooper said it was time to get these children into real homes.
"The time has come to recognize that we can do a better job, that these kids do have sponsors most of them related, in some ways with the children themselves," said Hickenlooper. "Let's make sure we get these kids back into homes where they really are homes."
WATCH GOVERNOR HICKENLOOPER'S REMARKS AT THE FACILITY:
Former housing secretary Julián Castro said after being denied a tour of the facility, he wants to know what they are hiding.
"Instead of being shown this detention facility where 2,700 kids are staying, we were stonewalled. We were stonewalled today by an administration and a private contractor that does not want us to see what is happening behind those walls. It makes you wonder what in the hell are they hiding. Is it the overcrowding, is it the sexual abuse, is it the emotional damage that has been done to these children, many of whom are here for weeks and weeks and some of them for several months. We need to reform our immigration system. It is necessary to protect these children. This administration, for all of its talk about immigration, has been a complete disaster. It has been a total failure," said Castro.
WATCH SECRETARY CASTRO'S REMARKS AT THE FACILITY:
The inability to gain access to the facility and the lack of transparency was a topic each candidate attending the press conference touched on. But according to the company that owns the Homestead facility, Caliburn International, these allegations are untrue.
In a statement on Wednesday, Caliburn International explained how to get a tour of the shelter, saying, "Visitors to the Homestead temporary emergency shelter are welcome but they must first register with HHS ORR for clearance and approval, a process which can take up to 14 days. 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 ORR prior approval."
Several other candidates have also visited the site.
On Monday, Representative Eric Swalwell visited and spoke with protesters who are a regular presence outside the facility.
On Wednesday, Senator Elizabeth Warren visited. The congresswoman was not allowed to enter the facility, so she stood atop a ladder with a hat and sunglasses in the 90-degree heat to wave to children behind the fence. She said some looked down and a few waved back.
Senator Amy Klobuchar also visited on Wednesday as did Jane Sanders, wife of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. She said one of her husband's first executive actions as president would be to shut down facilities like the one in Homestead.
On Thursday, it was Sen. Sanders turn to visit, and he stopped to briefly speak to the media. He was asked about whether these detention centers were essentially concentration camps.
"You do not lock up children, including kids who are 8, 9 or 10 years of age, especially when these kids, in most cases as I understand, have relatives in the US. Simple truth," said Sanders. "I have constituents who still have the numbers on their arms from Auschwitz. No, this is not that, those were death camps. This is a prison camp."
"It does not look like a place where teenagers are supposed to be," said New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio who visited Thursday.
Former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke was also there Thursday following the debates the night prior. He said the facility looked like "a military POW camp."
"Our policy, one that follows legislation that I cosponsored in Congress, says that no family, no child, no woman, no man who is seeking asylum or refuge in this country will be criminally prosecuted. It's not a criminal offense," said O'Rourke. "But I also wanted to call our attention to the larger opportunity, which is to completely rewrite our immigration laws."
Caliburn International responded to O'Rourke's claims in a statement saying, "Unfortunately, Congressman O'Rourke came to the Homestead temporary emergency, not to find out more about the shelter, but to use it as a political, campaign stop. As such, his information is inaccurate and his allegations about the shelter misleading and erroneous. Unfortunately, if he had sought a visit through the required process, he could have seen the shelter firsthand, or even if he had asked to meet with staff during his quick drop by, he could have received more precise information. So when he suggests children are punished for touching, that educational needs are not being met, or that children are being withheld from family members, he's got it wrong. The Homestead temporary emergency shelter has over 4000 dedicated employees who strive to provide the best possible care for each and every child and to assist in their safe placement with properly vetted sponsors. Reunifications are done as quickly and as safely possible, most in a month. No child is kept longer than required for a safe placement. We all want the same thing and share a common goal; that is, caring for these children and finding them a safe home--and that is exactly what we are doing at the Homestead temporary emergency shelter."
Sanders, O'Rourke, and de Blasio each climbed the ladder, as Warren did, to get a look at the children.
ABOUT THE FACILITY
The Homestead shelter, which is the only for-profit child detention center in the country, houses approximately 3,000 children, all ages 13 to 17 years old.
It is the largest child detention center in the United States for unaccompanied minors.
The facility is run by Caliburn International, a Virginia based company awarded a government contract to manage the center.
President Donald Trump's former Chief of Staff, General John Kelly, is on the company's board.
Caliburn International operates the facility under a no-bid contract that is worth more than $350 million.
They are waiting to be reunited with their families or paired with sponsors once they are screened by the U.S. government.
Many of the children are fleeing gang and domestic violence and will end up seeking asylum.
Children sleep up to 12 per room in steel-framed bunk beds, and warehouse-sized, air-conditioned white tents where minors attend classes and watch movies.
The facility has a command center. Inside are cameras, computers, and staff members who watch over the kids. They keep track of how many kids are in the shelter and how many are moved.
While numbers vary, officials say most are reunited with family members. Those who are not can be at the shelter for as long as 57 days. On average, a child's stay there is about 25 days.
The children have school six hours a day and there are recreational activities.
At night, lights go out in the rooms at 10 p.m. but are left on in the hallways. The children are awakened each day at 6:30 a.m. for a full day's program of activities and classes.
During the day, the kids are provided breakfast, lunch, dinner, and three snacks.
The children meet with their attorneys once a week. They also have access to clinicians and social workers.
On their arrival, they are given a five day supply of clothes, laundry is done every other day.
The facility, contracted by the Department of Health and Human Services, is surrounded by chain-link fence, but there is no barbed wire. There are guards, but they are not armed. Doors have been removed from the dormitory bedrooms.
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