My Turn: In Homestead, Fla., I was a witness to the suffering of children

  • Tents have been added as the Homestead center expands. Courtesy

  • Kids at Homestead average 67 days in this fenced-in environment. Courtesy

  • Glen Ring stands with Josh Rubin outside the child detention center in Homestead, Fla. Rubin camped for three months outside a similar detention center in Tornillo, Texas. That center was closed in late January. Courtesy

For the Monitor
Published: 3/3/2019 12:20:20 AM

I returned recently from Florida. I loved the warmth but had not been on vacation. I stood with other witnesses outside a huge child detention center in Homestead for six days with the goal of exposing conditions in a hidden child prison.

In the fierce Florida heat, the Homestead detention center has created conditions for children that are, according to Rep. Donna Shalala, “chilling.”

Approaching the center, one passes the Homestead Air Reserve to which it is attached. Having grown up on Air Force bases, it actually felt familiar – the bland cement buildings of my childhood.

The camp itself is large. It occupies both sides of a street for about two city blocks. The camp is surrounded by fencing with opaque green shades that prevent outsiders from looking in. The center houses around 1,500 asylum-seeking teens, and it is scheduled to receive about 1,000 more.

Another witness, Bonnie, and I stood outside in the rain our first day with Martin Levine, a retired Miami lawyer. We parked ourselves near the entrance marked in large brown letters, “Homestead Branch.” The next day the three of us stood again. On Friday, Josh Rubin arrived.

Josh is widely revered in activist circles. He camped out at the Tornillo detention center, located near El Paso, Texas, for about three months until it was closed in late January. Moved by the horror of an immigrant child jail, he drove down from Brooklyn, N.Y., rented an RV and just stayed.

Josh is a seasoned witness. He arrived with binoculars and his trademark waterproof sign that says, “FREE THEM.” He asked questions and walked around to get a sense of the place. Josh posts his observations to a Facebook page that has around 5,000 followers. His posts inspired many people to join him at Tornillo and already there are people writing that they plan to come to Homestead.

Passers-by

The days of witnessing were long and sweaty. Holding our signs, we greeted employees who mostly ignored us. Traffic was heavy during shift changes, and sometimes drivers responded to us. There were some thumbs up. Someone yelled, “Go Home!”

A man in a truck stopped to talk. He lived close to the camp but was unaware that this site had become a child detention center. He agreed that it should close, but his reason was that it impedes his daily travel. He said his father fled Cuba when Castro came to power, but he does not think current asylum seekers deserve the same treatment his family got.

A minivan stopped, and Josh and Bonnie walked out to it to talk. They returned smiling. The Hispanic family in the van said they were grateful and surprised to see white people standing up for Central American kids.

People were surprised that I traveled from New Hampshire, but people from all over the country are engaged in the movement to help asylum seekers.

Housing kids at Homestead is part of a punitive strategy designed to discourage people in Central America from seeking legal asylum.

Often we witnesses were asked what we recommend doing with these kids if not keeping them somewhere like Homestead. The answer is actually simple: Reunite them with their families or sponsors.

Most of the kids are labeled “unaccompanied minors,” but they often entered the country with a family friend or relative, just not a parent. The government bureaucracy moves slowly to release these kids to the trusted adults waiting for them.

During past administrations, most kids entering under similar circumstances would be released quickly until their asylum hearing date, then be granted asylum or not.

People sometimes point out that the long stays at Homestead are for the children’s safety, that background checks take a long time. To this I reply that once it was decided that the Tornillo center would be closed, within three weeks almost all the kids had been placed with families or sponsors.

How could that happen in Texas and be impossible to accomplish here?

Life at Homestead

Here is what I know about the lives of these kids. On average they stay in this institution for 67 days. Some kids have stayed as long as nine months.

They sleep in huge barracks on bunk beds. In one such room, 140 kids sleep on beds packed together so tightly there is barely room to move between them.

They walk everywhere in lines. They are accompanied everywhere, even to the bathroom. Staff cannot touch them. They cannot touch each other. Even siblings cannot hug each other. They have lessons provided by the for-profit corporation that runs the camp.

The superintendent of Miami-Dade County schools has asked repeatedly to observe the education offered the kids and been denied. When lawyers have visited them, children have broken down sobbing.

On our final day a delegation from the House Hispanic Caucus was scheduled to tour the facility.

The representatives

We arrived early. An AP reporter was already there, and two young filmmakers working on a documentary about Josh were speaking with him.

More members of the press arrived and greeted each other. One cameraman walked down the road to the fence that separates the kids from the outside world, set up and climbed a stepladder, and filmed the kids inside.

Guards were posted in prominent spots. After watching the photographer at work, they parked a truck to obstruct his view.

Later, the members of Congress arrived: Joaquin Castro and Sylvia Garcia from Texas, Donna Shalala and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell from Florida. The detention center is in Mucarsel-Powell’s district.

The representatives visited briefly with the press before disappearing inside the detention center. Two hours later they emerged and again stood in front of the microphones. The delegation, surprisingly, was able to interview some of the kids.

Mucarsel-Powell broke down as she stated: “I did not see criminals or gang members. I saw kids who have hope that this country will welcome them.”

Later, Bonnie and I drove back to South Miami where we spent our final night at the home of a local Quaker couple.

We learned that the Miami Quaker meeting is very involved in immigrant issues. They’ve been sponsoring a Salvadoran mother and her son, who were separated as they came across the border. The Quakers helped reunite them, found them a place to live and have supported medical treatments. Everyone is nervous about the upcoming asylum hearing, knowing that only about a third of requests are successful.

The two also work closely with the local American Friends Service Committee, which has been working to unite the Homestead community in opposition to the detention center.

There is a delicate dance between those from around the country who arrive to protest our government’s policy and the people who live there. Local people know others who’ve gotten a good paying job at the detention center. They understand the intricacies of relationships in their community. When the center is closed and out-of-state protesters return home, how the goal was achieved will leave a legacy in the local community.

The question is, how will we close this detention center? Will events evolve as at Tornillo, where outsiders arrived and brought publicity that supported the longstanding efforts of local, grassroots groups?

Homestead is unique among all the immigrant detention centers in the country. It is the only one operated by a for-profit corporation. Imprisoning these kids costs the U.S. government over $1 million per day. The Caliburn corporation, which holds the contract for the Homestead center, will soon go public. Making enormous profits, isn’t it obvious that Caliburn will work to keep the center open as long as possible?

The witnessing

My journey to witness really began last June. Already sickened by the administration’s family separation policy, I felt compelled to act by the recorded cries of separated children calling for their mothers.

In my mind I held an image of an exhausted, desperate mother and child presenting themselves at the border and being torn apart. Their journey is so similar to my grandfather’s. He escaped pogroms in Ukraine and was led through several countries and over rough terrain to a European port, where he boarded a ship and landed at Ellis Island.

Most Americans have a family immigration story. These stories often create empathy for today’s asylum seekers, but there are people who ignore their own family’s past and jump at the chance to demonize and scapegoat asylum seekers.

I recently heard someone read a statement from a boy who spent months in the Tornillo detention center. At that camp, as in Homestead, the kids had the physical basics such as food and clothing, but also endured the absence of touch, the separation from family and the uncertainty about the future.

He wrote, “Yo sufrí.” “I suffered.”

Our country, with its emblematic Statue of Liberty, cannot be a place that prolongs the suffering of those seeking refuge.

I am back from Homestead, but the work continues.

Between March 5 and March 8, another New Hampshire group, members of the Human Rights Working Group of the Kent State Coalition, will travel to Homestead. This group has worked tirelessly on immigration issues.

Since the situation in Homestead is ever-evolving, I look forward to their update.

(Glen Ring taught Social Studies for 26 years in the Concord School District. She now teaches ESL for adults and tutors New American students.)




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