Child detention meets N.H. primary politics

  • JAKE SHERIDAN—Monitor staff

  • A group of demonstrators calls for the closure of the Homestead detention center in Homestead, Fla., from Main Street in Concord on Friday. JAKE SHERIDANMonitor staff

  • Melissa Hinebauch protests outside the migrant child detention center in Homestead, Florida in May, 2019. —Melissa Hinebauch

Monitor staff
Published: 6/25/2019 5:37:04 PM

The boy at the Homestead detention center floods Melissa Hinebauch’s mind whenever she closes in on presidential candidates.

She thought of him last Friday as she protested off Concord’s Main Street, cars flying by, sometimes honking at the sight of her “Stop Separating Families” sign. She guessed the boy, who had no choice but to stay in the southern Florida detention facility, was about her son’s age – 16.

As she protested downtown, she recalled her visit to Homestead, when he waved at her with one hand, then two as she stood on a ladder and peered over a tarped chain-link fence detaining him and some 1,700 other children. How could she forget him?

“I just can’t sleep at night knowing that these children are basically lost and hidden from view,” Hinebauch said.

That restlessness has stirred Hinebauch to action. She’s part of the Kent Street Coalition, an advocacy group that is working to shut down the nation’s largest detention center for immigrant children in Homestead, Fla., and they’re using the nation’s first primary to do it.

“Our main goal is to support the children who don’t have a voice, all the children who are incarcerated and detained at detention centers like Homestead across the country,” Hinebauch, who has visited Homestead twice, said. “Our second goal is to tell as many people as possible about it, specifically, to challenge and bird dog all of the presidential candidates who are coming through N.H.”

As presidential hopefuls tour New Hampshire, Kent Street activists join their crowds, wait for an opportunity – a microphone at a town hall or a moment to chat with a candidate – and strike.

“Every time we go to an event, we ask a question: will you go to visit Homestead in person?” Hinebauch said.

It’s worked. So far, eight candidates have promised to visit Homestead: Biden, de Blasio, Gabbard, Gillibrand, O’Rourke, Swalwell, Warren and Williamson. Four of those pledges came in New Hampshire, while Warren and O’Rourke committed elsewhere when asked by allied activists. Most are following through. Swalwell visited on Monday, de Blasio, Gillibrand and O’Rourke plan to go on Thursday and Williamson will be there on Friday. Warren plans to visit the center on Wednesday and Gillibrand plans to visit later, campaign staffers told the Monitor. Biden’s campaign did not respond to questions about his plans.

Since publishing, several candidates have announced visits. Klobuchar plans to go to Homestead on Wednesday, and Buttigieg, Castro and Harris plan to go Friday.

The visits will bring cameras to Homestead and more attention to the migrant child detention crisis, which dominated headlines last Monday when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called centers like Homestead “concentration camps.” More controversy followed last Tuesday when the Trump administration argued in federal court that the government didn’t need to give detained children basic hygiene items, like soap and toothpaste.

Eyes on Homestead

A few feet down from two child-sized mannequins placed behind a cage at Friday’s demonstration with two dozen activists, Hinebauch said she wants all migrant child detention centers closed. Her group, however, is leveraging it’s access to New Hampshire politics to shut down and target the one in Homestead. That’s because it’s the only migrant child detention center that is for-profit, Hinebauch said.

“Caliburn and Comprehensive Health Services are charging $750 a day per kid, so there is a financial incentive for them to have more kids at Homestead and to keep them longer,” Hinebauch said.

As of June 16, about 2,500 children ages 13 to 17 lived at the detention center. Its capacity has doubled this year. According to the Associated Press, the average length of stay at Homestead was 67 days as of last December. The Flores settlement, which the federal government agreed to in 1997, sets a 20-day maximum on the detention of migrant children, Hinebauch said.

Hinebauch of Concord sees other problems, too. There’s safety: the detention center avoids regulation because it’s on federal property, Hinebauch​​ said​​​​​, meaning employees watching the children aren’t properly vetted and protective oversight groups don’t have access to the camp. And there’s a conflict of interest: Former Trump chief of staff John Kelly is on the board of Caliburn, the parent company of Homestead’s operator, Comprehensive Health Services.

“They’re profiteering off of the incarceration and suffering of children,” Hinebauch said.

Dennis Jakubowski of Loudon, who’s been demonstrating with Hinebauch for three months, visited Homestead in late April. What he saw horrified him.

“I am a father, and I’m a grandfather. There’s no feeling like standing on that ladder, and looking at thousands of children that could be your children, that are being treated like criminals,” Jakubowski said. “This is a prison.”

Bird dogging

At an early June town hall, Sen. Amy Klobuchar looked to the crowd filling the lobby of Shaheen & Gordon Law Firm after finishing a 20-minute stump speech. It was question time. She unsuspectingly pointed to Hinebauch, who wasted no time, immediately proposing a trip to Homestead.

“I’m asking you to visit during the Democratic debates in Miami on Wednesday. It’s 29 miles down the road. I’ve been there twice this year. It is brutal,” Hinebauch said.

“Yes, yes. I’ve heard this,” Klobuchar interrupted, failing to share her solicitor’s zeal.

“It is heartbreaking,” Hinebauch continued.

“Okay, okay,” Klobuchar said, waiting for Hinebauch to finish before going on to criticize the Trump administration’s immigration policy and politely deflecting the invitation. “I don’t know what our schedule is right now.”

Klobuchar wasn’t Hinebauch’s first. The tactic of pinning down a candidate on a specific issue, known as bird-dogging, can be effective. It’s worked with Booker, Warren, Gillibrand and Harris, Hinebauch said. The other day, she got Marianne Williamson at the State House.

“I literally bumped into her,” Hinebauch said. “I went around the corner and bumped right into her. And then I bird-dogged her.”

Kent Street uses email, postal mail, tweets and calls too, Hinebauch said, and when she can’t get to an event herself, she puts a call out to her bird-dogging team, which includes Jakubowski and his wife, Deborah.

“My wife bird-dogged Mayor Pete,” Jakubowksi said. “She gave him a bottle of maple syrup that we make with a Homestead button attached to it and asked him to go visit. He didn’t commit.”

The group has asked every candidate to visit Homestead, Hinebauch said. No candidate can escape them.

“We’re persistent. And we’re relentless. And we’re doing this all for the kids,” she said.

To Hinebauch, who has three school-aged children, this work is a duty.

“As Granite Staters, it is our obligation to exercise the extreme privilege that we have with the first-in-the-nation primary,” Hinebauch said. “We have to use this access to the presidential candidates for good. We need to be out there, we need to be talking to them, we need to be raising awareness about Homestead and other really important issues.”

As the sun grew weary Friday evening, Hinebauch reported that her group had gotten “lots of thumbs ups, lots of waves, lots of honks” during the week’s protest. They’ll be out there again next week.

 “These children are languishing in these detention centers,” said Hinebauch.  “Somebody has to do some thing.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect new plans to visit Homestead from Warren, de Blasio, Buttigieg, Castro, Harris and Gillibrand. Warren visited the detention center on Wednesday, June 26.

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