South Florida lawmakers tour nation's largest shelter for migrant children

About 1,600 teens currently being housed at Homestead shelter

By Glenna Milberg - Reporter

HOMESTEAD, Fla. - Lawmakers from South Florida toured the nation's largest facility for housing migrant children Tuesday, which is located in Homestead.

The facility was toured last year by various lawmakers.

Democratic U.S. Reps. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Donna Shalala, who are freshman lawmakers, toured the facility for the first time Tuesday.

"I would like to ask questions from the children, because what we are being told sometimes just does not align with what is truly happening in this country," Mucarsel-Powell said.  

The congresswoman said she spoke to several children during her tour, including a girl who has been separated from her family for nine months.

"She was separated from her aunt crossing at the border, so it does seem like there are children separated from families at the border," Mucarsel-Powell said. "What I did not see: I did not see criminals, I did not see gang members. I saw kids who have hope that this country will welcome them."

Lawmakers and news reporters have been trying to document reality at the facility since the federal shelter reopened last year.

The shelter is currently housing more undocumented unaccompanied teens than any other facility.

There are about 1,600 teens currently at the shelter, with plans to possibly take in 2,400.

The shelter is run by a for-profit contractor. 

"We want to take a very careful look to the extent that we can," Shalala said. "I personally don't like them in the prison system, and I particularly don't like them when they're dealing with children." 

Shalala said the system in place for these migrant children is unacceptable.

"The definition of unaccompanied is too narrow. If you come with any other relative but a parent, you are defined as unaccompanied," she said. "We need to get these children to family members much more quickly and Congress will have the opportunity to look up what's holding up the process. If it's resources or if it needs to be re-thought through, we need to make sure the leadership is there."

Shalala said there needs to be a decrease in the amount of time it's taken to reunite children with their families.

"We've got to find a way to cut the time for the children who have family members. Cut the time to check out the family members and get them into homes, whether foster care or into the home of a family member or some other kind of friend, etc., who have been approved by the proper authority," she said. 

The Trump administration's Office of Refugee Resettlement talks of humane shelter, food, education and recreation at the shelter, but skeptics call it prison for already traumatized teens escaping violence or poverty across the border. 

"If children are running from a horrible situation, you don't stop them, you don't put them in prisons, you don't put them in detention," protester Josh Rubin said. "You open your arms and you welcome them." 
 

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