Amnesty International calls for closure of migrant child detention center

Edward Helmore
Photograph: Rhona Wise/AFP/Getty Images

Amnesty International USA has called for a detention center for migrant children in Florida to be closed down and for congressional public hearings to be held into conditions at the facility, which lies near Miami and was recently visited by a slew of 2020 Democratic candidates.

The human rights group said in a new report that the detentions were “cruel and unlawful” and “the disastrous consequences of US policies toward children seeking protection”.

“The temporary emergency facility at Homestead is far from meeting basic standards under US and international law for providing safe and healthy environment for children,” Amnesty US’s executive director, Margaret Huang, told the Guardian.

“A significant number of the children at Homestead have their cases managed by people sitting in Texas. That means they’re not getting the kind of firsthand care you’d expect. There are also a number of children who don’t speak either English or Spanish so often aren’t getting proper attention or the services they need.”

Homestead Influx Facility houses several thousand children, ages 13 to 17, and is the largest facility in the US for migrant children.

Based on interviews with children formerly detained at Homestead, along with current facility staff members, the Amnesty study titled No Home For Children describes the fear and confusion of children being held indefinitely and with inadequate levels of care.

“Homestead is an industrial line for processing mass numbers of children, instead of focusing on their best interests,” said Denise Bell, researcher for refugee and migrant rights, who described the detention of child migrants as “a stain on the US human rights record”.

Amnesty said it had gained access to Homestead twice, in April, when it found over 2,100 children, and again in July, when it held just under 2,000 children. At the height of its operation, Homestead’s numbers soared to 2,500.

The report states that the private for-profit facility holds children in a restrictive setting, where they are required to follow a highly regimented and strict schedule and wear ID badges with barcodes that are scanned when they enter and leave buildings.

Requests for basic services, including sanitary pads, must be made by submitting a request form. Where they do receive educational services, many are held back because they speak indigenous languages.

In the past, advocates have filed court petitions describing “prison-like” conditions at the facility. Amnesty reported instances in which children have tried to escape.

But the larger problem, says Amnesty, is that no child should ever be held in conditions of mass detention. According to 1997 Flores Settlement agreement governing the detention, release and treatment of all migrant children, unaccompanied children, and particularly children at the end of perilous journeys, should be placed in the least restrictive setting possible.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg, speaks outside the Homestead detention center, along with several other Democratic presidential candidates. Photograph: Jennifer King/AP

Amnesty claims that Homestead’s “temporary influx” designation enables it to evade a US legal requirements for unaccompanied children that apply to permanent Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) shelters.

Under Flores, unaccompanied children must be moved to state-licensed shelters “as expeditiously as possible” – within 20 days if possible, the report says. But the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) says unaccompanied children at Homestead were held on average for 52 days in March 2019.

Amnesty says it spoke to one child who had been detained at Homestead for eight months. In other cases, lawyers reported that children had been held for more than 100 or even 200 days.

“The US government is relying on an exemption which should be used in exceptional circumstances only to circumvent its obligations,” Amnesty says in the report.

“Homestead was designated as a temporary emergency shelter but it’s not temporary and it’s not clear this is an emergency,” says Huang.

Homestead came under scrutiny earlier this month when a group of lawmakers including congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz found that the number of children being held had dropped dropped from 2,252 to 1,180 in the two weeks before their visit.

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“What the heck? From July 3 to the 14 of July, suddenly they’re able to drop 1,000 kids here when they couldn’t do that as quickly before? Where did they go?” said Wasserman-Schultz at a press conference, reported the Associated Press.

In June, Homestead was visited by a delegation of 2020 candidates, including the senators Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and the former HUD secretary Julián Castro.

None of the candidates were allowed in, and instead spoke to medical and healthcare professionals who described harsh conditions.

Warren described peering over a ladder to see a “harsh, packed-down field” surrounded by temporary shelters. Warren called Homestead’s existence “a stain on our country”.

According to Amnesty’s Denise Bell, the vast majority of children detained at Homestead have parents or sponsors willing to take them. “The prolonged and indefinite detention of children was a crisis of the government’s own making,” she claims.