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Immigration

Exclusive: Homestead detention center for unaccompanied migrant teens to reopen under Biden

The Biden administration is planning to soon reopen a Homestead detention center for unaccompanied migrant teens as border crossings start to rise, two Department of Homeland Security officials with knowledge of the facility’s operations confirmed to the Miami Herald Tuesday.

The center— now known as the Biscayne Influx Care Facility — is preparing to house migrant teens ages 13 to 17. Federal Police Services and Constellis, two private contractors, are expected to provide security when the center is officially reopened, a third source contracted with DHS confirmed.

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All three officials agreed to speak to the Herald on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the reopening.

In an email to the Herald Tuesday afternoon, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the agency that oversees migrant children in U.S. custody, declined to address whether the facility would be reopened. A U.S. Department of Health and Human Services spokesman, Mark Weber, said a decision has not been made.

“We will notify state and local officials well in advance of opening this or any other temporary influx care facility,” he said.

On Monday, the Biden administration opened a facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas, a move federal officials said was needed because more than half of the beds at permanent shelters are not usable due to social distancing requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to government data, there are currently 13,200 beds for migrant children and 7,000 children in custody— over 90% capacity under pandemic-era requirements.

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It’s still unclear if Caliburn— the private company that was contracted under the Trump administration to run the facility— will continue as the facility’s operator. When the center reopens, it will be the first time it takes in children since closing in 2019. Shortly before it was shuttered, the Herald reported that John Kelly, Trump’s one-time chief of staff, was on the board of the private company, which he remains on today.

A spokesperson for Caliburn contacted by the Herald declined to provide any immediate comment.

The reopening plan comes shortly after President Joe Biden proposed a major overhaul to the U.S. immigration system aimed at eradicating former President Donald Trump’s hardline policies. The bill, known as the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, would represent the most sweeping immigration reform package since 1986 if passed, providing broad legal protections for millions of undocumented immigrants.

Preparing for the influx of migrant children

According to federal documents, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Government Contracting Services hosted a “virtual industry day” on Feb. 5 “for three upcoming temporary influx shelters under the Unaccompanied Alien Children’s Program.”

Documents from another virtual meeting for prospective contractors in late January show the government is seeking three separate contracts for the influx detention centers from 2021 to 2026, including “child advocate services, legal services, as well as direct care and supervision services.”

Which companies eventually bid on a government contract isn’t public information; only the company awarded the bid is public, once it happens. HHS and ORR did not respond to a request for more information.

In a recent Miami job posting, Serco Inc.— a UK contractor that has faced allegations of abuse and sexual assault in Britain and Australia — advertised an “exciting new career opportunity supporting direct care services and supervision at Biscayne Influx Facility!”

At the bottom of the post, Serco emphasized that the posting is for “the purpose of responding to a proposal. We are seeking qualified candidates in the event of a contract award.”

The Homestead facility was abruptly shut down in August 2019 after the Herald reported that the center didn’t have a hurricane plan in place. At the time, it supervised as many as 1,200 kids, making it the nation’s largest center for unaccompanied migrant children. The federal government defines unaccompanied migrant children as minors who enter the U.S. without a biological mother or father.

Homestead first opened as an emergency influx facility in 2016 under former President Barack Obama as the number of incoming migrants at the border first soared. The detention center shut down and reopened in March 2018 with the same emergency designation before closing again in August 2019.

In mid-2019, dozens of politicians used the Homestead detention center as a campaign stop to highlight immigration issues under Trump. Vice President Kamala Harris, who at the time was a presidential hopeful, was one of them. Biden never visited the Homestead facility during his presidential campaign.

White House officials declined to answer questions

White House press secretary Jen Psaki declined to answer questions about the Homestead detention center’s reopening on Tuesday, referring inquiries to the Department of Homeland Security. Psaki did confirm that a facility in Texas was opened on Monday to house teens who crossed the border illegally without their families.

“The policy of this administration is to not expel unaccompanied children who arrive at the border,” Psaki said. “Our goal is for them to be transferred to families or sponsors.”

Psaki said the Texas facility, which is being reactivated to hold up to 700 children, was reopened in part due to social distancing measures in place during the COVID-19 pandemic that limits the available space in existing facilities.

“It’s a temporary opening during COVID-19,” Psaki said of the Texas facility, adding that the reopening “is not a replication” of the Trump administration’s policy of separating families who arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border. “This is not kids being kept in cages,” she said.

A congressional source told the Herald that the Department of Homeland Security has indicated the Homestead facility is being readied for “overflow” if the Texas facility fills up. In 2019, the facility was placed in “warm status,” or on standby, before being completely shut down by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services after children were sent to other facilities and the partially staff was laid off.

Psaki urged families not to travel to the U.S.-Mexico border on Monday. U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported that 78,323 people were detained at the U.S.-Mexico border in January, more than double the number of people detained in January of 2020. The U.S. immigration system was severely strained and underfunded in the spring of 2019, when over 144,000 people were detained at the border in May of that year.

“We need more time to put in place a humane and moral immigration system,” Psaki said. “This is definitely not the time to come.”

 

Members of Congress react to reopening

South Florida members of Congress weren’t given advance notice of the Homestead detention center’s reopening. Sen. Marco Rubio commented on the center’s reopening in a tweet, calling for additional media coverage and arguing that Biden is now “locking up children in cages.”

Democrats from South Florida, including Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and former Sen. Bill Nelson, were blocked from visiting the facility in 2018, prompting Wasserman Schultz to file a bill that required the federal government to give members of Congress access to the facilities to conduct oversight.

Wasserman Schultz said Tuesday evening that HHS and ORR told her office that no final decision has been made on reopening the Homestead facility.

“My office has talked with HHS and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials all day today, and I have communicated to them that child detention centers run by for-profit companies, such as Homestead, are unacceptable in Florida or anywhere else in the United States,” Wasserman Schultz said in a statement. “I urge the administration to use alternatives to detention, expedite the reunification and sponsorship processes, and only use state-licensed facilities for migrant children.”

In 2019, Democratic hopefuls for president climbed a stepladder to look inside the facility, which became a photo-op for candidates to criticize Trump and discuss immigration policy.

“This is an American tragedy. This is something that’s almost impossible to believe that’s happening in our time and in our name,” former presidential candidate and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said during his Homestead stop in 2019.

Former Democratic Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who referred to the Homestead facility as “prison-like” while in office and called for its closure, said the Biden administration should not reopen any facility that is run by private companies.

“Their main goal is to keep beds occupied and if you go by that premise we should not reopen the Homestead facility,” said Mucarsel-Powell, who represented Homestead in Washington from 2019 to 2021. “We need to look at humane and compassionate ways to provide shelters for these children.”

In a tweet, Mucarsel-Powell said the decision to reopen Homestead was disappointing.

“To say I’m extremely disappointed is putting it mildly,” Mucarsel-Powell tweeted. “I ask the Biden Administration to seriously reconsider the reopening of the Homestead Detention facility.”

Mucarsel-Powell said the Biden administration should use smaller facilities run by non-profits like Catholic Charities to house children that cross the border unaccompanied. She noted that the Homestead facility, when it was run by the for-profit company Caliburn, clothed children in grey sweatpants and housed them inside tents that were not suitable for shelter during a hurricane.

Thomas Kennedy, an immigration activist with United We Dream who helped organize protests at the Homestead facility, said detention centers that generate profits are immoral.

“Quite frankly the reason why it’s being reopened is because our immigration system is a business and people make a lot of money out of these facilities because they bring in contractors that get paid millions and millions of dollars from taxpayers,” Kennedy said, noting that immigration attorneys and activists reported that sexual abuse and mistreatment were rampant at the facility when it operated during the Trump administration.

Kennedy said a protest is being planned outside the center on Thursday, with additional actions likely to follow next month.

“It’s really disappointing to see the administration do this,” Kennedy said. “We are going to forcibly and publicly oppose it.”

 
McClatchy White House Correspondent, Francesca Chambers, contributed to this report.
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