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My Turn: February to June – changes at Homestead, changes in me

  • Glen Ring (right) stands with other witnesses on stepladders facing the imprisoned children. “Te queremos! We love you! We see you!” Courtesy

  • —Courtesy

For the Monitor
Published: 7/11/2019 9:25:31 AM
Modified: 7/11/2019 9:25:21 AM

The Homestead child detention center, located on federal land in Homestead, Fla., houses around 2,700 asylum-seeking teens. It is called a “temporary emergency shelter,” a designation that allows it to circumvent the “Flores agreement,” which limits immigrant child incarceration to 20 days.

The center is operated by Caliburn, a private, for-profit corporation.

Last February I arrived at the Homestead detention camp and held my hand-lettered pillowcase sign as I stood with a few others in front of the facility. The Tornillo child detention center in Texas had just closed and the Homestead camp was “bulking up.” I stayed six days. Mostly, I stood with a sign.

My experience saddened and enraged me. I wanted to channel these emotions into actions to shut places like this down. At Homestead I heard about a national movement called Stand on Every Corner. I announced on Facebook that I would stand on a corner in Concord and was quickly joined by others, many part of Concord’s Kent Street Coalition. We now stand with our signs every Friday from 4 to 5 p.m.

I fundraised and received enough money to help others travel to Homestead, and I helped put together two forums on immigration. Via Facebook, I observed the growth of the witness presence at Homestead and the increasing sophistication of the effort.

People from all over the country were journeying to Homestead (including 10 members of the Kent Street Coalition in April) and now are greeted upon arrival by a core group of witnesses. These include Marty Levine, who started this protest alone on Feb. 11. There is now a “home base,” open-sided tents and chairs, a permanent collection of signs and giant hearts on sticks, and five stepladders for witnesses to stand on so they can wave to the kids and yell, “Te queremos.” “We love you!” “You are not forgotten!” “We see you!”

A schedule is maintained by a volunteer in Maine, and there is even a “handbook.” Crucially, there is now history of what has been witnessed: shredders and ultrasound machines moving into the camp; the refused delivery of letters written by school children all over Florida (even criminals in jail can receive mail); the multiple refusals to admit Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, Homestead district’s member of Congress; the discovery that John Kelly, former White House chief of staff, was visiting the camp, which led to disclosure that he is on the board of Caliburn and so profits from this detention facility.

Every witness I’ve spoken with considers their experience at Homestead to be life-changing. One witness from New Hampshire, Dennis Jakubowski, said, “Once you’ve seen it, you cannot unsee it.” The fact that thousands of innocent children are locked up and treated like criminals inhabits your mind and colors your days.

I decided to go back to Homestead in June. I cannot really explain why I had to visit again, though I know others have visited multiple times. Part of the answer is wanting to place my body where my mind is, part is wanting to see the kids and show that people on the outside care about them, and part is wanting to support permanent witnesses.

When I first went to the Homestead detention camp, I knew it was a bad place. Children were imprisoned when they could easily be reunited with family members. However, in the four months that have elapsed more information has emerged about what happens inside. And the camp population is increasing.

Testimonies from a recent lawsuit reveal that within this drab camp, some girls are cutting themselves. Children are being threatened with longer stays if they misbehave. Others have been kept in solitary confinement. Kids have no idea when they will be released. Many cry themselves to sleep. The government recently threatened to end English lessons, outdoor recreation time and access to lawyers.

In Homestead, I sweated in the summer heat and humidity and endured the daily torrents of rain. I transported soggy protesters to a Father’s Day march in my rented van and talked about witnessing with fellow witnesses Marty, Charlie and Debbie. I climbed up on a stepladder, waved a large red heart and yelled to imprisoned kids for over an hour at a time. I felt giddy when kids waved back; some even danced a little.

I thought about Charlie’s reply to my question about why witnessing is important. She pointed out two main purposes: to shine light on what authorities would like hidden and to be there for the kids, daily, so they know someone cares about them.

Through discussions I continued to learn about the cultural issues in Miami and Homestead. There is a bigger context to understand. The camps are built in poor communities where people will take an unpopular job. This economic manipulation must be addressed, just as the root cause of the huge migration to the U.S. from Central America must be.

Witnessing at Homestead will not stop until the camp is closed. The camp at Tornillo, Texas, closed after three months of witnessing, but the Homestead camp will take longer. The Caliburn Corporation makes $750 per day per child; profit motive overshadows moral concerns. However, recently a series of presidential candidates visited. They stood on the ladders, saw the imprisoned kids and shared their reactions with a national audience. I hope with all my being that these visits will have a real impact for the kids who need to be reunited with their families.

Every Friday afternoon I stand on the corner of Park Street and North State Street from 4 to 5 p.m. Showing up with a sign is a simple act. What I’ve learned this past year is that many simple acts repeated over and over are how change happens. Another person stops by the Homestead camp while on vacation in Florida. You converse with someone who isn’t sure what the button you wear means. I am now part of a movement.

There are a few larger-than-life people who are sacrificing more than I can imagine giving, and there are thousands of others who got the wake-up call like I did. They feel the daily pain caused by being unable to forget what they’ve seen, but along with pain feel the cleansing relief of no longer being studiously ignorant, of refusing to be numb. I’ve met a small army of people who’ve stepped out of their comfort zones, driven by compassion and seeking justice.

Recently I got a message out of the blue from someone who has become aware of the children of the Homestead detention center and wants to join our weekly protest. I wholeheartedly applaud her first step.

(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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