‘It has a prison-like feel’: Lawmakers tour Homestead shelter in hopes of shutting it

After five Congressional representatives toured the Homestead facility for migrant children Tuesday, lawmakers convened a roundtable discussion in South Miami-Dade to discuss how they plan on shutting it down.

The visit comes one week after the Miami Herald published a story on the facility, which is holding 1,600 unaccompanied minors between the ages of 13 and 17 who have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border without their parents. It is the country’s only temporary emergency shelter after the Trump administration last month shuttered a massive migrant camp in Tornillo, Texas. A watchdog group had raised health and safety concerns about the Texas facility.

The congressional delegation included U.S. representatives Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Donna Shalala, who represent South Florida, as well as Texas Congressional representatives Sylvia García, Michael Burgess and Joaquín Castro, chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

The roundtable featured national immigration advocates, including representatives from the American Friends Service Committee, Shutdown Tornillo Coalition, We Count, Catholic Legal Services and Family Separation Survivors.

While the Democratic representatives spoke about shutting down the center, Burgess, the only Republican among the five, said in a written statement he was “pleased to see children receiving excellent care from dedicated HHS staff.”

Castro briefly described the shelter’s structure, which includes bunk beds and tents, and said the government needs to do a better job of hosting the migrants. He said he saw boys and girls full of hope and not “invaders,” which is how President Donald Trump has referred to the undocumented immigrants seeking asylum at the border.

“No federal agency has full responsibility for the migrants who make their way to the United States,” Castro said. “It is all part of a broken and morally bankrupt system.”

An immigrant from Ecuador herself, Democrat Mucarsel-Powell said visiting the shelter has been her top priority since she was elected to Congress in November, defeating Republican incumbent Carlos Curbelo. However, it took a long time to set up the tour with the private company that runs the shelter.

“As a mother, it was very difficult to walk through the center,” Mucarsel-Powell said. “It has a prison-like feel.”

García and Mucarsel-Powell both said the employees who gave them the tour did not answer all the questions they asked, pertaining to who was providing education and healthcare to the children.

Shalala, the former University of Miami president who is newly elected to Congress as a Democrat, described the visit as “chilling experience.”

“It’s unacceptable to house children in these situations for a long period of time, especially knowing that the facility is operating outside of state child welfare regulations,” said Shalala, who was Health and Human Services secretary in President Clinton’s administration.

Shalala said the government needs to reduce the time it takes to unite children with their family members. Because the Homestead facility sits on federal land —the old Homestead Air Force Base — and because it’s considered a temporary shelter, officials can keep children there for months at a time, not the maximum 20 days mandated by a 1997 federal court settlement, known as the Flores Settlement.

The representatives’ visit comes days after Trump declared a national emergency to make an end-run around Congress to try to finance building a border wall. Sixteen states have sued the Trump administration over using emergency powers to build the wall, contending there isn’t a national emergency and that federal funds are being diverted from their states to pay for the wall.

Lawmakers are a regular presence at the Homestead facility, which reopened in June 2018 after the Trump administration instituted a “zero-tolerance’’ immigration policy in April 2018, resulting in children being separated from their families as they tried to enter the United States illegally to seek asylum. Trump rescinded the family separation policy in June after an international outcry.