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Homestead 'temporary' shelter, photo by US Health and Human Services

In January, the government finally closed Tornillo, that tent city shelter that had housed up to 3,800 teens at a time. Partly because of pressure from the public and lawmakers, but mostly because the Texas nonprofit that ran the place for the Department of Health and Human Services decided not to renew the contract. Some of the kids stored at Tornillo were released to sponsors in the US, and others were shifted to other facilities around the country. But the closure of the Tornillo kinder-kamp wasn't the end of shitty warehousing of migrant kids, heavens no, because the government has another "temporary" shelter, this one in Homestead, Florida, where kids aged 13 to 17 have also been kept crammed in close quarters for months at a time. In December, the feds expanded the Homestead shelter's capacity from 1,350 to 2,350 children, and in recent days, the place has been the focus of critical coverage from the Miami Herald, Huffington Post, and NPR.

Tornillo had been the object of protest not simply because it was a bunch of tents (very nice air-conditioned tents, the government kept pointing out), but because as a "temporary" shelter on federal land, it was exempt from regulations that apply to other child-storage facilities under HHS management. Staff didn't have to be licensed child-care workers and the kids didn't have to receive an education, although they did have the option of filling out workbooks if they wanted to. Access to mental health services and legal help were also iffy at Tornillo.

And big surprise, same goes for the shelter in Homestead, which is on federal land borrowed from the Job Corps, but is actually operated by a for-profit outfit, Comprehensive Health Services, Inc. Since it's allegedly meant only to handle "temporary" overflow of "unaccompanied alien children" (the charming bureaucratic term for kids who come to the US without parents or guardians), the Homestead shelter is also exempted from regulations that apply to other shelters, as the Miami Herald explains:

Temporary emergency shelters, according to federal officials, are any "unlicensed care provider facility that provides temporary emergency shelter and services for unaccompanied alien children when licensed facilities are near or at capacity."

Being unlicensed means the facilities like Homestead don't have to be certified by state authorities responsible for regulating facilities that house children. Temporary shelters also don't have to comply with the 1997 "Flores Settlement," which limits the length of time and conditions under which U.S. officials can detain unaccompanied minors — 20 days.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon), a key figure in the opposition to Trump's treatment of migrant kids and their families, is pissed, and recently reintroduced his "Shut Down Child Prison Camps Act," aimed at banning the use of "temporary" shelters to imprison migrant kids. Merkley told the Herald,


" The use of this temporary status, to bypass regulation, to keep children locked up for long periods of time, far exceeding time period set in the Flores Agreement, is chilling" [...]

Children belong in homes, schools, and parks — not behind barbed wire," Merkley said in a statement. "Our taxpayer dollars are being used to traumatize children by keeping them in a child prison camp instead of in the arms of their families. This is evil."

And just how "temporary" are the stays of kids being held at Homestead? HHS released a "fact sheet" yesterday, apparently in response to all the press attention, saying the average length of stay for kids at Homestead was 67 days, although HuffPo reports children in Homestead routinely have stays of over six months. Also, you'll be glad to know the "fact sheet" takes pains to point out that none of the teens at Homestead were transferred there from Tornillo, and that the shelter also isn't housing any of the kids taken from their parents at the border last summer during the "zero tolerance" program, so surely all is well.

As part of a lawsuit over the administration's child detention policy, five "legal and child psychology experts" were allowed to interview children held at Homestead. They didn't paint an especially rosy picture of the child warehouse:

"These children are in perhaps the most restrictive and least family-like setting possible," said Neha Desai, the director of immigration at the National Center for Youth Law, in an email to HuffPost. "I spoke with youth that slept in rooms with 100 other kids at night. Some of them have been there for months on end, with no freedom of movement, no privacy, no human contact."

Before the expansion at Homestead in December and January, kids typically slept in rooms of 12, but now they're crammed into larger rooms full of bunk beds, according to J.J. Mulligan Sepulveda, an attorney with the UC-Davis School of Law's Immigration Law Clinic. Mulligan Sepulveda told Huffpo

the bunk beds in these large rooms were in "perfect, neat, 12-by-12 rows" and that children were packed in "like sardines." "[There's] just enough room to walk by [with your] shoulder skimming the bunk beds on each side," he said. "[It] really hits home how inhumane it is."

HHS photos of the sleeping arrangements in Homestead show the sardine cans, and gosh, isn't it cozy like a summer camp that you can never leave? And where if you need to use the terlet at night you get a guard escorting you outside to a porta-john?

We should also note that despite the incontrovertible fact that "JJ Mulligan Sepulveda" is a name that should be reserved for a character in a cyberpunk novel, the actual Mulligan Sepulveda has written a nonfiction book about immigration lawyering in the days of Trump, No Human is Illegal, which we will have to add to our growing "gotta read this" list.

As was the case at Tornillo, Homestead strictly enforces a no-touching policy, and that even holds for siblings, or for goodbyes to friends who are finally being released to sponsors (or shipped to another facility). NPR spoke to one of the attorneys, Leecia Welch of the National Center for Youth Law, who said the interviews were wrenching:

We see extremely traumatized children, some of whom sit across from us and can't stop crying over what they're experiencing [...]

We hear stories of children who are told from the first day of their orientation that under no circumstances can they touch another child in the facility, even their own sibling, even friends who they're saying goodbye to after many months of shared intense experience. They can't hug them goodbye. If they do, they're told they will be written up and it could affect their immigration case.

Has it ever occurred to any of the people running these places that maybe we're the baddies?

Then there's the education, which you can at least say is marginally better than at Tornillo, but only because it was mostly nonexistent there. And golly, since as a "temporary" facility, Homestead isn't even strictly required to hold classes at all, as required by Flores. Of course, not being covered by Flores also means the local school district is actively barred from inspecting or sending teachers to the shelter. HuffPo reports the kids spend most of their day in classes held in large tents, though whether they learn much is anyone's guess. The tents are subdivided into classrooms, but that just means everyone in the tent hears noise from other classrooms:

Mateo, a 17-year-old who was recently released from Homestead after seven months and who requested a pseudonym to protect his privacy, told HuffPost that noise traveled between the classrooms, making it a "very loud and very distracting" experience.

Hey, maybe the kids should feel lucky to get any school at all! That's certainly the attitude in that HHS fact sheet, which insists no interference from the local schools is needed or wanted, because HHS is ON IT:

While the Homestead shelter is crowded and restrictive and doesn't provide the children with particularly good education, at least it's also expensive as fuck. Where HHS's usual cost to warehouse kids waiting to go to sponsors is about $256 a day, NPR reports Homestead is a bit pricier, which should gladden the hearts of CHS shareholders.

The average daily cost to care for a child at an influx facility is about $775 a day, according to Evelyn Stauffer, press secretary at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. With nearly 1,600 children at Homestead, that puts the burn rate at over $1.2 million a day [...] "

The cost of a temporary shelter is significantly higher because of the need to develop facilities quickly and hire significant staff over a short period of time," Stauffer wrote in an email to NPR.

Obviously, it's a pretty good scam, and besides, these kids are all lucky we didn't just deport them immediately, so please don't make a fuss, OK? And gee, we didn't even go into any detail on the fun policy where the moment the kids turn 18, they get shackled and turned over to ICE so they can be sent straight to adult detention with no education at all, because the law is the law and on their birthdays, the kids transform into full-grown MS-13 thugs.

Look, everything's normal and good and why would you even care about this army of invaders? You should be ashamed of yourself.

[HuffPo / Miami Herald / NPR / Texas Tribune / Guardian / Miami New Times / HHS "fact sheet" ]

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