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Florida Shelter Is Scrutinized For The Way It Handles Migrant Children


Thousands of migrant children are still arriving at the southern border every month without their parents. And many of them are housed at an emergency intake shelter in South Florida. That facility has come under scrutiny because it's the only child shelter for immigrants that is run by a for-profit corporation and the only one that isn't overseen by state regulators. NPR's John Burnett got a rare look inside.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The Homestead facility is the biggest and most controversial shelter for migrant children in the country. Critics say the government is warehousing kids in a makeshift prison camp. But on a recent tour, the shelter director took pains to show me a different perspective. The kids live in sand-colored dormitories, amid palm trees and bougainvillea, inside a fenced campus next to Homestead Air Reserve Base south of Miami. The tour included the soccer field, the phone-home room, the medical clinic and the classrooms. I'm told about the talent shows and the pizza and ice cream for good behavior. There is one youth care worker for every 12 immigrants. The teenagers walk past in an orderly single file, smiling and singing out hola to a visitor's greeting.

But that's all a reporter ever hears. On these stage-managed walk-throughs, journalists are not permitted to record anything, to take photographs or speak to the children. It's for their privacy and protection, we're told. After the tour, I sit down with a group of attorneys who have been granted access to the children by a federal court to oversee their welfare while in federal custody. I caught up with them after they met with two dozen youngsters inside Homestead.

LEECIA WELCH: We see a very different picture. We see extremely traumatized children, some of whom sit across from us and can't stop crying over what they're experiencing.

BURNETT: Leecia Welch is director of legal advocacy at the National Center for Youth Law.

WELCH: We hear stories of children who are told from the first day of their orientation at the facility 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. We see a very different picture than the reporters see.

BURNETT: Homestead is like no other federal children's shelter in America. Not only is it the biggest - it can receive up to 2,350 kids - but it's the only for-profit facility. The operator is Comprehensive Health Services. The Florida-based company dispatched medical teams to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina and to Balad Air Base in Iraq. And in 2016, it got into the shelter business. The current Homestead contract is worth up to $220 million. The burn rate is $1.2 million a day, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Immigrant advocates fear America's prison-industrial complex has now expanded into federal child custody. Maria Rodriguez is director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition.

MARIA RODRIGUEZ: From what I understand, it's the first for-profit child detention center. So just let that sink in.

BURNETT: Company executives declined to be interviewed. But a Comprehensive Health Care vice president said in an email that the safety and welfare of unaccompanied minors at the Homestead facility is a top priority and that they follow all laws. And the no-touching rule - officials say fist bumps are allowed. In filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the parent company, Caliburn International, states that border enforcement and immigration policy is driving significant growth. The company also warns investors that the, quote, "challenging and politically charged environment could adversely impact our share price." Kevin Connor is director of the Public Accountability Initiative, a watchdog research group.

KEVIN CONNOR: Caliburn's SEC filings make it clear that they understand the controversial nature of the policies that they are benefiting from.

BURNETT: The Border Patrol reports a continuing surge of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum. Five-thousand children were apprehended crossing the border in January alone. Once in federal custody, they're sent to Homestead or to one of the 130 smaller permanent shelters. The Office of Refugee Resettlement, ORR, which is in charge of the shelter network, insists that its mission is child welfare, not detention. Jonathan Hayes, acting director of the agency, says the shelter facilities are better than the austere holding cells that you find at the border.

JONATHAN HAYES: The main mission is to ensure that kids are not stuck in true detention facilities in cages and border patrol stations. That's the goal of all of us here at ORR and our grantees. We want to get these kids into our shelters as quickly and as safely as possible without delay.

BURNETT: But critics say the kids are kept at those shelters for too long, an average of 67 days at Homestead, before they're released to live with a sponsor and wait for a court date. And they want the facility closed. Now Democrats have introduced legislation in Congress that would do just that. It's called the Shut Down Child Prison Camps Act. Another large emergency shelter closed last month amid incendiary criticism. It was a tent camp in Tornillo in the West Texas desert. Neha Desai is director of immigration at the National Youth Law Center. She was in the group that interviewed children at Homestead.

NEHA DESAI: There is absolutely no basis for detaining children at an influx facility for months and months on end.

BURNETT: Homestead is unique because it's a temporary overflow facility on federal property. That means the shelter doesn't have to be licensed by the state and follow Florida child care standards, though it does have to comply with federal regulations. Being on federal land also means the shelter doesn't have to be part of the local public school system. The shelter director says the children receive a good education, but Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, disagrees.

ALBERTO CARVALHO: For me, this is personal.

BURNETT: Carvalho says he came to this country himself as an unaccompanied immigrant from Portugal at the age of 17. Now he's angry the federal government is telling him he can't inspect Homestead's classrooms.

CARVALHO: For me to now be running a school system and not take a position and fight for the educational rights of kids regardless of immigration status would be the equivalent of me turning my back on myself.

BURNETT: But all the criticism hasn't hurt business. In the past two weeks, Comprehensive Health Services has been issued new state licenses for three shelters in South Texas to hold 500 migrant children for the U.S. government. John Burnett, NPR News, Miami.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOGS' "BEWARE OF SAFETY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Burnett
As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.