HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Local 10 News got a rare inside perspective of the largest shelter in the country for young migrants who cross the border unaccompanied. The Homestead facility has been the focus of protest and criticism.
If you did not know why the 13- to 17-year-olds are at the facility, it might look like summer camp or boarding school instead of a temporary shelter run by a government contractor.
You can hear laughing during recess and happy chatter in the classrooms.
Local 10 News reporter Glenna Milberg spoke randomly with a girl learning English and a boy who said lunch was good -- mindful that just weeks ago, each likely lived in poverty or fear and made a traumatizing, treacherous trip across the border to connect with someone in the U.S.
"We don't want children to be in our care a day longer than they need to, but we also don't want to release children into an unsafe environment," said Mark Weber, of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The average stay in the facility is almost two months because of a more careful vetting of sponsors than in the past.
Meanwhile, the teens have medical and legal assistance available, as well as counseling.
They are free to ask for wants and needs and they come and go with a chaperone.
Their dorms resemble college ones, although there are 12 beds to a room for the 13 through 16-year-olds and 144 beds in a cavernous space for the 17-year-olds.
Walls are covered with artwork, inspirational messages and advisories on sexual abuse and how to report it.
A central command room has security camera images and digital tracking.
Protesters outside have not yet been offered a chance to see inside, and some say they may not realize they and the staffers at the facility want the same thing.
"We need to be able to make sure kids aren't backing up at Border Patrol stations. This is why we come and do these type of operations," said Lydia Holt, of the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
There are 1,621 teens currently at the shelter and the population can expand if needed.
Staffers said they begin looking for a sponsor for permanent placement of each child the day they arrive at the shelter.