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US Allows Migrant Children to Languish in ‘Prisonlike Conditions’ Instead of Releasing them

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services does not allow news media to speak to children at guided tours of the facility

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migrant kids, US-Mexico border
FILE - Children line up to enter a tent at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in Homestead, Fla., April 19, 2019. Immigrant advocates say the U.S. government is allowing migrant children to languish in “prisonlike conditions” instead of releasing them. VOA

Immigrant advocates say the U.S. government is allowing migrant children at a Florida facility to languish in “prisonlike conditions” after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border instead of releasing them promptly to family as required by federal rules.

A court filing Friday revealed conditions inside the Homestead, Florida, facility that has become the nation’s biggest location for detaining immigrant children. A decades-old settlement governing the care of detained immigrant children calls for them to be released to family members, sponsors or other locations within 20 days, but the court filing accuses the government of keeping kids there for months in some cases.

The children detained at the facility said they longed to be released to their parents and other relatives in the United States and were allowed limited phone calls to loved ones. Some were also told to heed strict rules or it could prolong their detention or get them deported.

Volunteers interview dozens of children

“At Homestead, children are housed in prisonlike conditions and unnecessarily incarcerated for up to several months without being determined to be flight risks or a danger to themselves or others,” said the motion filed by the National Center for Youth Law and other organizations in federal court in Los Angeles.

Dozens of volunteer lawyers, interpreters and other legal workers interviewed more than 70 child migrants at Homestead during several visits over the past year. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services does not allow news media to speak to children at guided tours of the facility.

US-Mexico border, migrant
FILE – Migrant children play soccer at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in Homestead, Fla., April 19, 2019. VOA

A Honduran boy described arriving with an aunt at the Mexico border in December. She was deported and he was sent to Homestead, where he told attorneys he had been held for four months. He could speak to his mother in Honduras twice a week while waiting to be placed with another aunt in Virginia. He was punched in the face by a boy at the facility but said he didn’t see a doctor or tell his mother, out of fear she would worry more. “Already it is very hard. We both cry on the phone,” he told attorneys. “I have not seen my mom or any family for so long.”

Housing for thousands

The children’s allegations come as officials struggle to accommodate increasing numbers of minors illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. The Homestead facility, run by a private contractor, houses 2,200 minors and is expanding to add hundreds of beds. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services did not respond to requests for comment. The private contractor, Comprehensive Health Services, declined comment.

Many of the children are fleeing gang and domestic violence and will end up seeking asylum. Most are sent to live with sponsors once they are screened by the U.S. government, usually aunts or uncles or other relatives who are in the U.S.

Children’s testimonials

The court filing included testimonials from more than a dozen children who had been separated from parents last year before the Trump administration ended a policy that led to more than 2,700 children being taken from families. Others, who had crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in the past few months, came alone or with relatives such as aunts, uncles, and siblings and were also separated and placed in government custody.

The Trump administration has long complained about the 1997 settlement, which generally means the government should release children in about 20 days. The names of the children were redacted, but they testified being there for weeks, or months, without knowing when they would be released. A girl told attorneys she and her sister were at the same facility but kept in separate areas and only allowed to see each other once a week.

A 14-year-old boy from Honduras said he had problems videoconferencing with the social worker handling his reunification on two separate occasions, as the company began hiring clinicians and case managers to work long-distance.

migrant, US-Mexico border
FILE – Children line up to enter a tent at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in Homestead, Fla., Feb. 19, 2019. A court filing Friday revealed conditions inside the facility that has become the nation’s biggest for detaining immigrant children. VOA

“Sometimes there are problems with the internet, and I have to cut my call short or not talk to her at all and return another time,” he told attorneys. A Guatemalan girl said she didn’t speak any Spanish, only her native Maya language of Q’eqchi, when she arrived, and she had trouble understanding her social worker.

Families separated

In the same filings, a federal field specialist for the U.S. government’s Office of Refugee Resettlement said the goal is “safe, timely release” but there can be delays, for example, when sponsors can’t read and write. And when there’s no proof of a prior relationship, the sponsor is automatically disqualified, the specialist said, adding “the bottom line is always safety.”

In several occasions, children were flown from Florida to Texas locations promising they would be reunited with a parent, only to be flown back and booked again into the facility. A Guatemalan child expressed willingness to leave the U.S. voluntarily only to be told that a legal department would need to get involved. “It is hard for me to understand what is preventing me from joining my family,” the child said.

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A Salvadoran boy who said he left his country in January fleeing violence said children at the facility can’t touch anyone or fight or they could get a report that will delay their case. He told lawyers that staff told them they would be deported if they tried to escape. He said he couldn’t speak with his parents on his 17th birthday since he had already used one of his twice weekly 10-minute phone calls the day before.

“I miss them, and even though today is my birthday, it is hard because they can’t call me and I can’t call them,” he said. (VOA)

Next Story

Migrant Surge at US- Mexico Border Accelerates

More than 300,000 mostly Central American undocumented immigrants apprehended or requesting asylum so far in the current fiscal year

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Migrant Surge, US- Mexico Border
The Trump administration has requested supplemental funds for the current fiscal year and substantial increases in next year's DHS budget to address the border crisis. Pixabay

The Trump administration on Thursday said a surge of migrant arrivals at the southern U.S. border continues to accelerate, with more than 300,000 mostly Central American undocumented immigrants apprehended or requesting asylum so far in the current fiscal year, which began last October.

“We are in the midst of an ongoing humanitarian and security crisis at the southwest border,” acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan told a Senate panel. “Almost 110,000 migrants attempted to cross without legal status last month, the most in over a decade, and over 65% were families and unaccompanied children.”

At the current pace, 2019’s total for migrant arrivals would more than triple the number reported for all of 2018, which was 169,000.

Factors in migration

McAleenan said that while gang violence and rampant insecurity in three Central American nations has started to ebb, other factors, such as persistent droughts and a lack of economic opportunity, continue to compel a large number of people to trek north.

Migrant Surge, US- Mexico Border
Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan testifies before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in Washington, May 23, 2019. VOA

The DHS acting secretary also highlighted U.S. policy as a “pull factor” for migrants.

“Families [apprehended at the border] can no longer be held together through an appropriate and fair proceeding, and essentially have a guarantee of release and an indefinite stay in the United States,” McAleenan told the Senate Homeland Security Committee. “It’s been exploited by smugglers who are advertising that opportunity, and that’s what’s causing the significant surge that we see this year.”

The administration’s handling of migrant children continued to be a focus of congressional scrutiny after news broke earlier this week that a sixth minor — a 10-year-old girl from El Salvador — had died in U.S. government custody.

“We all agree that we must absolutely secure our borders, but the death of children in custody is simply unacceptable,” the panel’s top Democrat, Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, said. “We must identify what went wrong and ensure that this doesn’t happen again.”

Overwhelmed system

McAleenan said he has directed that all arriving children receive health screenings, and that, on average, 65 migrants are taken to hospitals daily. Overall, he pointed to an overwhelmed system pushed to the breaking point.

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“Given the scale of what we are facing, we will exhaust our resources before the end of this fiscal year,” said McAleenan, who also serves as chief of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, an agency within DHS.

The Trump administration has requested supplemental funds for the current fiscal year and substantial increases in next year’s DHS budget to address the border crisis. The panel’s chairman echoed the calls.

“This is a growing crisis and we have to … pass that emergency spending bill,” Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin said.

While agreeing that more resources are needed, several lawmakers said money alone can’t resolve the situation.

FILE – In this April 29, 2019, photo, Cuban migrants are escorted by Mexican immigration officials in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, as they cross the Paso del Norte International bridge to be processed as asylum seekers on the U.S. side of the border. VOA

“I think the smartest thing we could actually do would be comprehensive immigration reform, and God willing, someday we’ll get back and do that,” Delaware Democratic Sen. Tom Carper said. (VOA)