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There was a time when Miami proudly wore the banner of City of Refuge.
These days, we’re the capital of immigrant detention, taking our place front and center in the despicable practice of the mass incarceration of immigrant children.
How did we let this happen?
A mammoth, privately run Homestead facility surrounded by tall chain-link fencing topped by barbed wire has become our shame. It is holding 1,600 unaccompanied minors who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border without parents, and, with the closing of the loathed mass detention center in Tornillo, Texas, it is preparing to house more.
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The cost to taxpayers is already more than a million dollars a day.
The cost to our civic consciousness: immeasurable.
And I have to ask: Would we accept a prison camp for immigrant Cuban children in Miami-Dade?
Then why are we silently tolerating this treatment of Central American children, aged 13 to 17, as if nothing out of the ordinary were happening at this compound at the old Homestead Air Force Base? Where are the voices of outrage in this community? Why aren’t the Cuban-Americans in public office at the forefront of this issue? Why aren’t our big-name celebrities taking up the cause of the incarceration of these children as they did when Cuban children were being detained by the Clinton administration in the tent cities of Guantanamo, Cuba, in 1994?
The soul of this community has changed — and not for the better — in ways that I barely recognize these days.
The secrecy surrounding this for-profit Homestead facility is unprecedented. The media is seldom allowed inside; only members of Congress are hosted for occasional visits.
“It has a prison-like feel,” U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, D-Miami, said after visiting the center this week.
“A chilling experience,” U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala, D-Miami, described it.
A Herald reporter had to wait two years for what was a highly controlled walk-through with a visiting Health and Human Services official. She could ask no questions, take no pictures and only sit in for a brief question-and-answer period in the cafeteria between the official and eight children selected by the facility.
The children were all very grateful to have a roof over their heads, even if they slept packed into bunk beds under air-conditioned tents. But they were scared, nervous, sweating, fidgeting and had tears in their eyes.
All that control couldn’t hide their suffering.
When prodded, they asked for more time on the phone with relatives in the United States, shoes that don’t constantly break apart and ethnic food they’re more accustomed to eating. Pizza was the American favorite.
We should demand on their behalf: Release them to relatives and sponsors. Shut this monster down.
This was supposed to be a temporary emergency facility, but it’s been operating for a year now.
“The majority of the kids have someone that can take them, but the process is taking a very long time,” a person with access to the children told me.
Although the Trump administration says the average stay is 67 days, it has been more like 89 days lately, and some kids have been there over 100 days, an advocate said. This is unlawful. According to the federal Flores Agreement, children may be held by immigration authorities for only 22 days.
This prolonged detention is the result of “a broken and morally bankrupt system,” Texas congressman Joaquin Castro said.
Why should a 16-year-old who has a sister with whom to live in this country be incarcerated?
The lack of access to the children is explained away as necessary “to preserve the children’s privacy,” but secrecy only makes them vulnerable to abuse. Even in prison inmates jailed for horrible crimes are allowed to give interviews.
These children are prisoners, living under a strict, regimented system that forces them to walk in straight lines. They’re escorted even when going to the bathroom. The recreational space is shrinking as they bring in more trailers and build more tents.
The real reason for secrecy is that they don’t want us to see their humanity, to chronicle their stories and personalize their suffering. Journalists get hand-out photos from the Department of Health and Human Services of the back of the children’s heads while in class because your response would be different to a portrait that captures in their faces their innocence and their tears.
Why aren’t the people in this community who once were refugee children themselves demanding more of the federal government?
As remote as those detention camps were at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo, the government allowed access to the refugees through frequent media visits. After my first trip there, I returned with detailed reports and photos about who these people were and what kinds of conditions they were enduring. I brought back a 10-year-old girl’s diary and the photo of unaccompanied minors peering through a chain-link fence encircling their camp.
On my second trip, I covered the first airlift to freedom in South Florida. I didn’t violate their privacy. I gave them a voice, a face and a narrative that moved hearts and minds. That’s what the Trump administration most fears; facts get in the way of ruthless immigration policy.
This is a community made up of people who left Cuba because they didn’t want to send their children to la escuela al campo — the mandatory Cuban government program that sent children to work in the fields as part of their education. How can we remain aloof from what’s happening to other people’s children?
These children fled rampant gang violence. They were sent here alone with the same fears and hopes that prompted scared Cuban parents to ship their children alone during the Pedro Pan exodus.
Do you know what HHS calls them? “Unaccompanied alien children.”
Miami-Dade should be the last place on earth where immigrant children are mass incarcerated.