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"I have spent a lot of time crying": Migrant children describe life at Homestead shelter

Life inside the Homestead facility

The girl from Guatemala worries not only about herself, but others around her at the nation's largest facility for unaccompanied migrant children, in Homestead, Florida. Identified only by her initials, B.M. describes seeing children cutting themselves amid fits of tears. She said she tells them "not [to] think about the future or getting out to their families. But that's hard to do."

The sadness, confusion, anxiety and fear she describes echoes across dozens of testimonials from children at the facility filed by attorneys Friday in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, as part of a more than 600-page motion. They argue that the Homestead facility is failing to comply with the Flores Agreement, a landmark settlement that set rules for how the federal government must care for unaccompanied migrant children.

The attorneys interviewed children in Homestead in November 2018 and March 2019. They say they are detained for too long, "are harmed by lengthy detention at Homestead," and are subject to "prison-like" rules. The attorneys and children say they fear that breaking simple rules — length of shower, hugging or touching even their own siblings, not finishing meals — might hurt their chances at being released to their families. 

They complain of limited phone call time with families, and the feeling that their communications are not private. Some who speak indigenous languages and not Spanish say there are no staff who can communicate with them.

The attorneys have demanded that children at Homestead be transferred to other, licensed facilities, or rapidly be placed with sponsor families. The nation's more than 160 licensed shelters for unaccompanied children are subject to inspections by state child welfare authorities. Homestead is not licensed by Florida authorities for child care because it is on federal land, and is not subject to state inspections.

The Flores Agreement requires that children be placed in a licensed facility "as expeditiously as possible" and that officials make "prompt and continuous efforts" to release them to family members.

Comprehensive Health Services, the company that operates the Homestead facility did not reply to a request for comment. The U.S. Health and Human Services Department, which oversees the agency that cares for unaccompanied children, said it cannot comment on litigation, but Mark Weber, a spokesperson for the agency was able to comment broadly on the program.

"The safety and care of unaccompanied alien children is our top priority," Weber said. "(The Office of Refugee Resettlement) has worked aggressively to meet its responsibility, by law, to provide shelter for unaccompanied children referred to its care by the Department of Homeland Security while we work to find a suitable sponsor in the US. Since opening in March 2018 over 12,000 (children) have been placed at the site and more than 9,700 have been discharged to a suitable sponsor."

Neha Desai, an attorney who was among the team interviewing children at the facility, said its sheer size — at a capacity of 3,200, and currently holding 2,300 — runs counter to basic child care principles, which emphasize personal care and attention.

"The size of the facility itself really precludes the children's basic well-being," said Desai, who is Director of Immigration at the National Center for Youth Law. "Many of the kids I interviewed were so fearful and anxious that they were living in this condition of constant toxic stress."

Another lawyer involved with the effort herself wrote a lengthy testimonial about her interviews at the facility.

Hope Frye conducted a site visit at Homestead in late March. In her testimony, she wrote that children had not been advised of their rights or given a list of lawyers, did not know that they were allowed visitors and weren't given adequate time to speak with their family on the phone. She wrote that children who report being sick are supposed to receive treatment at the shelter clinic within an hour, but several children reported days-long delays despite repeated requests for medical treatment. 

Frye also described "serious concerns" over the safety and care of a 14-year-old blind Guatemalan boy who had been repeatedly abused by other children. When asked why the boy hadn't been released to his father, she was told staff was waiting on a $5,000 pair of glasses for the boy, but had no idea when they would be delivered.  

Read excerpts from 10 of the children's testimonials below:

B.M.
Age: Redacted
Country of origin: Guatemala
Detained about five months at time of interview

"Sometimes it's really hard having to stay here. A couple of girls since I've been here have been cutting themselves. That's why we're not allowed to bring pens or pencils into our bedrooms. We're only allowed to have clothes and a few other things like a toothbrush and a hairbrush."

"I have spent a lot of time crying and the other girls too. When the other girls cry, I try to tell them that they should try to be patient, focus on where they are now and to not think about the future or getting out to their families. But that's hard to do."

D.J.
Age: 16
Country of origin: Honduras
Detained 17 days at time of interview

"Other children here are also very sad. They cry a lot. Some children do not have anyone to receive them in the United States. They do not know whether they can ever leave from here. These children are suffering the most. Much of the time they are crying and crying. They do not have energy, they do not have hope, they do not want to talk with anyone, and they are not motivated to play. One of my friends has no one to receive him in the United States. When he is in his room, he just cries and cries."

"I wish I could leave Homestead and live with my aunt. She lives in Maryland and has been there for many years. .. I do not know when I can leave this place. I want to get out of here as soon as possible. ... I do not know anything about the Flores settlement agreement. No one here has given me information about my release option under Flores."

"I often feel sad and depressed here. I am accustomed to getting hugs from my family and to having my family say good night to me. I don't have anyone to do that for me here. I cry in my room some nights."

J.P.
Age: Redacted   
Country of Origin: Guatemala
Detained 2 weeks at time of interview

"When I got here, they told me the rules of the facility. They said there is zero tolerance for breaking the rules. We can't touch each other. If you break the rules, they'll give you a report. They said if you have a report, the government might not let you live here. So, it's very serious. Luckily, I don't have any reports."

"My sister is in another part of the facility. They told me that I could see her once a week on Fridays. When I talk with her, they say she's desperate to get out of here. I'm a little desperate too because I want to leave to go stay with my brother in North Carolina. All I can do is wait."

N.R. Velasquez
Age: 15
Country of origin: Guatemala
Detained 70 days at time of interview

"I have several family members here in the US. to whom I could be released. I am not sure why I haven't been released to (name redacted), I've been told that it's because the government is waiting for my birth certificate, but I have been told that my certificate has arrived. Now, my social worker has told me that we are waiting for my aunt's fingerprints to arrive but I don't know why it's taking so long. I have had four different social workers since I've been here, and they all tell me different things about what's happening with my release, which is confusing."

J.D.
Age: 13
Country of origin: El Salvador

"When I first came here, they gave us an orientation and told us that we had to follow the rules: no touching, five minutes for taking showers, 15 minutes to eat, no lending clothes, no taking any food into the bunk room, no sitting on anyone else's bed. If we don't follow the rules or pay attention to the youth counselors they said, we would get a report. If you get a report, you'll end up spending more time here."

E.E.
17
Country of origin: El Salvador
Detained about two months at time of interview

"I fled El Salvador for the United States on Jan. 18, 2019, with my uncle. We entered the United States near McAllen, Texas, sometime in early February. When we entered, the immigration officials separated us and I believe he is still in detention."

"If you break the rules, they will write a report and the staff at the orientation said that the report will delay your case. The staff also said that if you tried to escape, the government would deport you back to your country. You have to be crazy to try that, I can't even think about that because I really want to stay here in the United States. I plan on always following the rules.

I was sad to leave my parents but I had no choice because of violence directed at me in my country. I miss them and even though today is my birthday, it is hard because they can't call me and I can't call them. I get two days a week for 10 minutes each to call people and since I called them yesterday, I can't make another call today. It's disappointing because I can't even access the phone to talk to my mom on my birthday. Nobody has sung happy birthday to me today."

M.N.
14
Country of origin: Guatemala
Detained 26 days at time of interview

"I can speak Mam and Spanish. I have not met any staff here who can speak Mam. But there are some children here who cannot even speak Spanish. I saw one boy who cannot speak Spanish. He is always sitting alone with his head down. He cannot communicate with anyone. He looks very sad."

M.J.
Country of origin: Guatemala
Age: Unknown
Detained 138 days at time of interview

"At the orientation they told us the rules, it was not in my language but some people who speaks it let me know. They gave us a book of four pages. My social worker told me about an attorney but I haven't seen him in three months."

"I do not know what are the procedures to be released, I do not understand Spanish very well, I have learned Spanish here and nobody has explained anything to me. I see the social worker every 15 days, nobody tells me anything."

"I am not allowed to leave by myself, because there are cameras around and if they see me alone, they give me a report. The doors are locked. I haven't been told what happens if I leave the facility. I know that kids here can receive a report, I know of another boy who tried to leave and was given a report and he was sent to another shelter. I feel secure here, they treat me well, but if I want to leave by myself I cannot, I have to ask first but the supervisor told us we cannot wander by ourselves."

"I cannot talk to my mother as often as I want because they only give us 20 minutes a week to talk on the phone. If I want to talk five minutes every day I cannot do it, it has to be the 10 minutes at a time. I do not think it is enough time, I would like to talk to my mom in Guatemala more often. I talk with her about how I am doing. ... I do not tell her if I need something (like toothbrush and toothpaste) because I do not want her to worry. She gives me advice to be good and do not get in trouble, I think I need more time to talk to her. I do not talk to my father often because immigration is listening to the conversation and he is detained."

Y.C.
Country of origin: Guatemala
Age: Unknown
Detained 140 days at time of interview

"It is my understanding that I am not free to leave the Homestead facility. The children are also not allowed to be by themselves at any time. For example, we must ask for permission to go to the restroom and are watched as we enter and exit the bathroom. I think that if tried to go outside the facility's walls, it would be seen as me trying to escape and I would be sent back to Guatemala."

"We are not able to walk around the facility freely or without being directly supervised. My actions, and the actions of all the other children at the facility, are watched and monitored at all times."

"My room, which I share with about 11 people, is searched about once every week. The last search occurred about two days ago, but the guards did not find anything."

E.L.
Age: 16
Country of origin: Guatemala
Detained approximately 180 days at time of interview

"At the interview with my social worker and counselor, I was asked if I had any family members in the United States and I told them that I had an aunt (name redacted) in Florida. A whole month went by and I was finally able to speak to my aunt who said she would help me and that she would take care of me. When my aunt  spoke to my social worker, she was told by the social worker that since I did not know my aunt in person, they couldn't release me to her because she was not blood-related. I was then asked by my social worker if I had any other family members in the United States and I told them about (another) aunt, also married to another of my mother's brothers who now deceased. [She] was also told she could not care for me because we me not blood-related."