MIAMI— On Monday afternoon, Carrie Feit paced the sidewalk along the perimeter of a sprawling federally-owned complex across the street from an air force base in Homestead, Florida. It’s been more than a year since the property was last used to detain more than 2,000 immigrant children who crossed the border without an adult or who had been separated from their family members. The site was shut down during the Trump era amid an avalanche of scandals, including allegations of sex abuse involving the kids housed there.
But as talk of a “surge” of migrants at the border has picked up steam in recent weeks, speculation has swirled around whether the Biden administration will reopen the controversial detention center. That inspired Feit and other immigration-reform activists to mount a stake-out operation outside the facility to monitor if any immigrant children were transported in.
“We needed to start seeing again what was happening; if there were any preparations taking place,” the 47-year-old Miami-based activist said. “And also to resist and have a presence so we can send a clear message that we don’t want a child migrant facility reopened here.”
So far that hasn’t happened, but human activity on the site is picking up, Feit told The Daily Beast. Then, on Saturday, a Democratic member of Congress sent Feit and other immigration advocates into a panic with a tweet suggesting the facility might be a solution to the problem. The episode points to the perilous path facing Biden as his administration battles both humanitarian chaos on one hand and the bogus perception of an open border on the other.
“The Homestead facility is empty! Bring the immigrant children,” read a tweet directed at the official accounts of President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris and sent by Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson. "Send us the girls. Bring them now and hold me and my community responsible for their humane treatment. We will visit often and monitor their care! Miami-Dade is opening its arms!”
As the number of migrants, and especially children, in U.S. custody has shot up in recent weeks, the feds have stood up new facilities at a Dallas convention center and a former oil workers’ camp converted into an emergency housing facility for immigrant kids. But the apparent endorsement of a new version of the notorious facility in Homestead—from a prominent Democrat in power, no less—has advocates fearing the worst.
Thomas Kennedy, a Miami-based activist on immigration reform and other progressive issues, retweeted Wilson by linking to a video clip of Vice-President Harris condemning the site while on a campaign stop near the Homestead facility when she was still a Democratic presidential contender. At the time, Harris promised to shut down for-profit detention centers like the Homestead one for good.
In a phone interview, Kennedy told The Daily Beast he was taken aback by Wilson’s tweet, noting one reason progressive voters elected Biden and Harris was because they promised not to replicate Trump-era immigration policies. “Literally doing the exact same thing at the same facility is not acceptable,” Kennedy said. “If they reopen that site, it is quite frankly disturbing. It’s also a political liability for Democrats. They will look like hypocrites.”
A White House spokesman referred requests for comment for this story to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). A department spokesperson did not respond to emails on the matter. Wilson did not respond to a request for comment through her spokesperson for this story.
Since news reports began to circulate in late February that the Biden administration might reopen the shelter, Feit said she and other activists have spotted plenty of vehicles, including delivery and pest control trucks at the site. Workers have also repainted a wall near the entrance and put up green screens on the chain link fences to make it harder to see what is happening on the grounds, she claimed.
“That was another sign that something was moving forward,” Feit said. “We are really frustrated that the Biden administration hasn’t said, ‘Absolutely the Homestead center will never reopen.’ We oppose any militarized, lockdown facility. It’s a horrible place for children to be.”
The fracas comes as the Biden administration is working to contain a narrative about large waves of immigrants crossing the Mexican-U.S. border since the Democrats reclaimed the Oval Office in January. Last week, while touring an overcrowded Customs and Border Patrol facility in Texas, Republican senators blamed the Biden administration’s immigration policies, such as stopping construction of Trump’s wall, for a renewed influx of immigrants. At a news conference with his colleagues, Texas Senator Ted Cruz said, “What is occurring here on the border is heartbreaking and it is a tragedy.”
Around the same time, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas revealed the U.S. was expected to reach the highest number of people intercepted at the border in two decades. Most single adults and families are being expelled, while some unaccompanied minors are being permitted to remain in the country. As a result, more than 18,000 children, some kept well beyond the legal 72-hour are limit, were in the custody of Customs and Border Protection or other federal agencies as of last week, according to CNN.
Because of the record number of immigrant minors, the feds are scrambling over where to house them.
The way immigration advocates see it, the Biden administration has been sending mixed signals about whether the Homestead detention center, used as an overflow facility to house migrant children during both the Obama and Trump administrations, will again open its doors. According to previous reporting by Axios, the president himself opposes reopening the shelter, which falls under the purview of the Office of Refugee Resettlement within the Department of Health and Human Services. But the administration has not made a decision on the Homestead facility’s fate, according to The Miami Herald. If it does reopen, the center may be redubbed the Biscayne Influx Care Facility.
Three for-profit companies reportedly in the running to operate the detention center, including its previous operator Caliburn International, did not respond to requests for comment.
Under Caliburn’s watch, the temporary shelter was constantly under fire. After an investigation of the facility in 2019, Amnesty International determined that the federal government was violating the human rights of thousands of unaccompanied children by detaining them there for indefinite periods of time. According to the organization’s 41-page report, “It is a highly restrictive setting where children are required to wear bar codes, are provided with insufficient language services, inappropriate remote case management services, potentially inadequate educational services, and an inadequate system to report allegations of sexual abuse.”
Attached to the report was a three-page letter from Caliburn CEO Jim Van Dusen “to correct the record regarding a number of inaccuracies... which have led to a set unsubstantiated conclusions.” In the response, Van Dusen said that all of the detention center’s employees underwent an FBI fingerprint background check, “which highlight relevant information needed to ensure safety,” and that “great care is taken to ensure [migrant children] are kept physically safe at all times.”
Still, at least five allegations of sexual abuse were made during Barack Obama’s final term and at least two other alleged incidents were reported under Trump shortly after the facility reopened in 2018, according to the Miami New Times. In 2017, a former youth care worker at the shelter was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment after she was convicted in Miami federal court for attempting to coerce and entice an unaccompanied alien minor to engage in illicit sexual activity. The woman, Merice Perez Colon, engaged in inappropriate relationships with minors she met at the shelter by sending and receiving explicit videos and images, according to court documents.
A separate 2019 report by the social justice organization American Friends Service Committee found that the shelter is directly adjacent to Homestead Air Force Base, a superfund site that posed serious health risks to the children kept there. The committee noted that the shelter was close to contaminated soil on the base that contained arsenic, lead, and mercury. In addition, children were subjected to a constant barrage of sonic booms created by fighter jets taking off and landing at the base, the report stated.
Mariana Martinez, campaign and advocacy coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee, said Wilson’s suggestion amplifies the confusion immigration activists feel about the Biden administration’s plan for tackling what is fundamentally a humanitarian problem. “There needs to be more transparency,” Martinez told The Daily Beast. “There is still no clarification from [the Biden administration] on whether this site will be reopened. We believe that this center and no other center like this should be open.”
Like other immigration reform activists, Martinez is calling on the Biden administration to end the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s policy, enacted under Trump last year, of deporting migrants within hours of first contact to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The Biden administration has changed that policy, called Title 42, for migrant children, but not adults, preventing non-Americans from going through the asylum process.
“We just want a policy that is better for migrants and refugees,” she said. “All of this chaos could be prevented and halted if they were to allow asylum cases to be heard at the border.”