Democrat supports reopening detention center for unaccompanied migrant minors in Homestead

HOMESTEAD, Fla. – The detention center for undocumented unaccompanied migrant minors in Homestead remains closed and a few protesters who want it to stay that way were standing outside on Monday.

One said she was horrified when Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Democrat, asked President Joe Biden’s administration to reopen the facility to house the migrant children.

“Bring the immigrant children. Send us the girls. Bring them now and hold me and my community responsible for their humane treatment. We will visit often and monitor their care,” Wilson wrote on Twitter on Saturday. “Miami-Dade is opening its arms.”

In response to criticism after the tweet, Wilson wrote in a text message on Monday that the children are “suffering needlessly” and that she is working with the local party and activists to sort out their opposition.

What may complicate the decision for the Biden administration: Then-presidential candidate Kamala Harris visited the site in June 2019, and she criticized the use of private detention facilities. She also said one of the first things she would do if elected was to shut them down.

“I suspect as we have been hearing that the only reason is that they don’t want her to have egg on her face to open a facility where she was here criticizing it,” Rep. Mario Diaz Balart said.

Biden recently tasked Harris with dealing with the flow of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. This includes leading the diplomatic efforts with the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, where most of the migrants are running away from poverty and gang violence.

Unaccompanied minor Kaylee Samantha, 7, who said she came alone from Mexico, gets off of a small inflatable raft onto U.S. soil after being delivered by a smuggler in Roma, Texas, Wednesday, March 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who was confirmed about a month ago, released a statement earlier this month, saying the Biden administration had ended the prior administration’s practice of forcing the U.S. Customs and Border Protection to expel vulnerable unaccompanied children.

“The Border Patrol facilities have become crowded with children and the 72-hour timeframe for the transfer of children from the Border Patrol to HHS (the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) is not always met,” Mayorkas reported on March 16. “HHS has not had the capacity to intake the number of unaccompanied children we have been encountering.”

HHS is supposed to hold the child for coronavirus testing, shelter, and placing with a sponsor. Mayorkas said that in more than 80% of the cases, the child has a family member in the U.S., and in about 40% of these cases the family member is a parent or a legal guardian. The child’s sponsor is then supposed to wait for immigration proceedings to present a claim for relief.

A young child walks alone through the brush after being smuggled across the Rio Grande river in Roma, Texas, Wednesday, March 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

The Biden administration announced earlier this month the reinstatement of the Central American Minors program, which creates a lawful pathway for children from the Northern Triangle countries to be processed in their home countries to be reunited with their documented parent or parents in the U.S.

“The prior administration completely dismantled the asylum system,” Mayorkas said. “The system was gutted, facilities were closed, and they cruelly expelled young children into the hands of traffickers. We have had to rebuild the entire system ... The previous administration also cut foreign aid funding to the Northern Triangle.”

This March 20, 2021 photo provided by the Office of Congressman Henry Cuellar, (TX-28), shows detainees in a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) temporary overflow facility in Donna, Texas. (Photo courtesy of the Office of Congressman Henry Cuellar via AP) (Office of Congressman Henry Cuellar)

HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, who was confirmed a week ago, is working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to develop the capacity to meet the surge of unaccompanied children.

Both Representatives Carlos Gimenez and Maria Elvira Salazar said they are not against the Biden administration’s reopening of the facility in Homestead if there is a need to do so and the children are treated well.

“When there is a need, there is a need. In the past administration and in the present administration, until we solve the problem at the border,” Salazar said.

About the Authors:

Glenna Milberg joined Local 10 News in September 1999 to report on South Florida's top stories and community issues. She also serves as co-host on Local 10's public affairs broadcast, "This Week in South Florida."

The Emmy Award-winning journalist joined the Local 10 News team in 2013. She wrote for the Miami Herald for more than 9 years and won a Green Eyeshade Award.