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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.

ALSO READ: Customs Department: Smuggling Gold at an International Airport, UP would Cost Passport

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

On an Average, Nearly 1 Migrant Child Dying Daily Since 2014: UN

The Mediterranean remains the most fatal crossing, with over 17,900 people dying there –many on the hazardous trip between Libya and Italy

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migrant
On Jan. 31, 2019, the migrant rescue ship Sea-Watch 3, carrying 47 migrants, comes into dock at the Sicilian port of Catania, southern Italy. VOA

The U.N. migration agency says migrant children have died or gone missing at the rate of nearly one per day worldwide over the past five years, with treacherous journeys like those across the Mediterranean or the U.S.-Mexico border continuing to take lives.

In its latest “Fatal Journeys” report, the International Organization for Migration has released findings that some 1,600 children – some as young as 6 months old – are among the 32,000 people who have perished in dangerous travels since 2014.

migrant
FILE – Migrants, mainly from Central America, guide their children through the entrance of a World War II-era bomber hanger in Deming, N.M., May 22, 2019. Appeals court judges will hear arguments over conditions in holding facilities near the border. VOA

The Mediterranean remains the most fatal crossing, with over 17,900 people dying there –many on the hazardous trip between Libya and Italy.

ALSO READ: Trump Sends Undocumented Migrants to Sanctuary Cities

The IOM also pointed to rising deaths every year along the U.S.-Mexico border since 2014, totaling more than 1,900 over five years. (VOA)