Children at Immigration Detention Center Living in Psychologically Damaging Conditions

Lawyers have filed a lengthy document that records the “prison-like” environment in which migrant children are living at a Homestead, Florida detention center for unaccompanied minors. Migrant children were described as living in desperate and psychologically damaging conditions.

A group of lawyers spoke with unaccompanied minors who are being held at the secretive detention center, which currently houses 2,350 children and continues to grow. The children told lawyers that they were so distressed that they resorted to harming themselves.

“I interviewed many children that were in such distress that they cut themselves,” attorney Neha Desai told the Miami Herald. Desai said she spoke to a 14-year-old Honduran girl who lived with her aunt after her mother died from cancer. Years after her mother’s death, the girl and her aunt crossed the border but were separated. The girl had been detained for eight months at the time of her interview with Desai. “The girl was never told where she was being taken or why,” Desai said. “Her aunt was placed in ICE [Immigrant and Customs Enforcement] detention elsewhere while her niece was taken to Homestead…. She started to cut herself.”

Desai, who was one of a few attorneys allowed to speak to the children, did not immediately respond to The North Star’s request for comment. The 705-page court document was filed in California by attorneys for the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law along with other groups. The court document aims to show how the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office of Refugee Resettlement violated the Flores Agreement.

The 1997 agreement, which arose from the California case of Flores v. Reno, requires that the federal government prioritize the release of migrant children to their parents, relatives, or guardians. The mandate limits the amount of time children can stay at a detention center to 20 days. The HHS reported in 2019 that the average length of detention at Homestead was 67 days, WSHU reported.

Court documents revealed that Homestead is not licensed by the state of Florida and not regulated by Florida child welfare or foster care authorities. According to WSHU, the government refers to the detention facility as a “temporary influx facility.” Homestead, the largest federal children’s shelter in the US, was quietly opened during the Obama administration. The for-profit “youth sanctuary” was phased out but eventually reopened and expanded in 2018 under the Trump administration, the Miami Herald reported.

The attorneys asked US District Judge Dolly Gee to enforce the Flores Agreement and to order the government to release the minors within 20 days of arriving at influx facilities, including Homestead. “[Children’s] length of detention at Homestead is far from temporary” and it is harmful to the children, the filing claims. “That harm can be avoided if the government complies with the terms of the [Flores] settlement and within 20 days transfers minors to licensed facilities if they cannot be released to a parent or sponsor.”

Desai told the Miami Herald that detained children are “battling a sense of deep helplessness and sheer frustration and confusion.” She added, “It’s profoundly distressing for them and something needs to be done.” The government claims Homestead can bypass the Flores Agreement because of its status as an “emergency and temporary influx center.” An HHS spokesperson told the Herald that the Office of Refugee Resettlement (which is part of HHS) has worked “aggressively” to meet its responsibility and provide shelter for unaccompanied children.

The agency said more than 12,000 unaccompanied minors have been placed at Homestead since it opened in March 2018. More than 9,7000 have been released to a suitable sponsor. At least six migrant children have died while in government custody. HHS revealed that a 10-year-old girl from El Salvador was the sixth migrant child to die in US custody. The girl was under the care of the staff at an Office of Refugee Resettlement facility in San Antonio, Texas in March 2018.

Authorities said the girl was in a “medically fragile” state when she was taken under custody. She underwent surgery and was left in a comatose state following complications. She was eventually transferred to an Omaha, Nebraska nursing facility to be closer to her family. On September 29, 2018, she was taken to Children’s Hospital of Omaha, where she died.

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Asia and Australia.