HOMESTEAD, FL—Joshua Rubin grabbed the little shade that was available on the grass, away from the blistering sun that felt ready to melt the asphalt. Seated in a lawn chair, he calmly discussed logistics with a local police officer about the visitors expected in this city, just over 30 miles southwest of Miami.
At some point over the next 48 hours, at least a third of the sprawling Democratic presidential field would be visiting the Homestead detention center, the largest shelter for unaccompanied migrant minors in the country. They would come and cause a melee of sweaty cameramen being directed out of the way of passing traffic in scalding 93 degree heat. And they would see Rubin and others who had been compelled to go down to Homestead long before them in hopes of bringing attention to—and the demise of—the facility. A chalkboard sign tethered to a canopy to shield from the heat told the story of the length of time activists had spent on their mission: "Day 136."
“We’ll take what we can get,” Rubin, a 67-year-old software developer who lives in Brooklyn, said of the parade of presidential candidates that included—on Wednesday alone—Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and the wife of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Jane Sanders. “We’re getting some light on this place," Rubin said. "It’s getting mentioned on the news. I’ll take it however I can get it. What we worry about, of course, is that it’s a flash rather than a hard hot spotlight, which is what this place needs in order to close it down.”
In the era of Donald Trump, controversies materialize by the week. But the crisis at Homestead and facilities elsewhere seems entirely different than the rest, not just because it involves the detention of migrant children in—what virtually everyone now concedes to be—horrifying conditions, but because it has drawn the attention of almost every candidate running to replace the president. The proximity of Homestead to the site of this week’s debate has made the pilgrimage there a must do for those seeking the Oval Office. And though the journeys gave off the distinct impression of political opportunism, Rubin said he didn't mind. The spotlight after all was more important than the motives.
Wearing a sun hat, with binoculars around his neck, as if on a fact-finding expedition in a tropical environment, Rubin said that he had been in Homestead for the first month and a half of what activists at the scene were calling a vigil. Others had been in attendance for the remainder of that 136 day period. He had been traveling back and forth from Brooklyn since. Before that, he was at Tornillo, a tent city of migrant teenagers in Texas, where Rubin became a fixture of the protest against President Trump’s family separation policy.
Democrats have sought to draw attention to the Trump administration’s family separation policy in the past, with visits to facilities in Texas last summer. But there has been a stronger sense of urgency of late given reports of deplorable conditions in Customs and Border Protection facilities in Texas as well as a disturbing image of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his baby daughter who drowned in the Rio Grande. Homestead has elicited additional concern due to the presence of former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly on the board of advisers for the private contractor in charge of the center. That company, Caliburn International, has pushed back on assertions from lawyers who have visited that the conditions are not “prison-like.”
During Wednesday night’s debate, Homestead did come up, as part of a larger conversation over how the candidates would handle immigration on day one in office. But the exchange—like many others in the two-hour affair featuring ten candidates—went quickly by.
“It should also piss us all off,” former HUD Secretary Julián Castro, said of the images of Ramírez. He called for ending the provision that made it a federal offense to attempt to cross the United States border. “They had been playing games with people who are coming and trying to seek asylum at our ports of entry.”
Earlier in the day, Rubin had said that he had hoped the candidates on stage would feel the same sense of urgency about unaccompanied minors that had drawn him and others down to Florida in the first place. He feared that the situation was too dire to wait until the next election to solve.
“These kids can’t wait until one of them is president,” Rubin said. “These kids’ lives are being destroyed by being kept in a place like this. So we’re here to get the attention of the nation on this place. I’ll take what they’re offering but I want something sooner. I want them to campaign and mention their moral outrage of what’s going on here.”
That’s exactly what Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) did on Wednesday morning. After announcing an impromptu visit to the facility at a town hall on Tuesday night, the Massachusetts Democrat showed up to a raucous crowd of activists and attempted to gain entry into the facility, which she was denied. So she stood atop a ladder overlooking a gate that separated a sea of white canopies and the estimated 2,400 minors inside, shielded from the view of the media and public.
“We are not a country that believes that policy works best when we impose maximum pain on our fellow human beings,” the senator said into a megaphone. “And we are not a country that believes that we should separate children from their families. What’s happening here at Homestead is wrong and we will fight it with everything we have.”
Jane Sanders, the wife of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), came shortly after Warren, guided down the sidewalk with Rubin. She told a small group of reporters that she was pleased that the presence of politicians at the facility had resulted in broader media coverage. She promised that should her husband get elected president, it would “be his first executive order to close the detention centers,” if they remained standing by the beginning of his term.
Even more candidates are set to visit Homestead on Thursday, when Sanders and O’Rourke will head to the facility, and Friday, when Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-FL), who represents the district where the shelter is, will lead a delegation that includes Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Castro and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY).
There was a clear political undercurrent to the sojourns that was hard to escape. Homestead wasn’t just being held up as a symbol of a immigration policy that they all bemoaned, it was being used as a cudgel against the president that they want to unseat.
And yet, if the activists who had been there for weeks prior—and who would remain there for weeks later—were being used as veritable campaign boosters, they didn’t seem to mind.
“I think a grassroots type of campaign, introducing yourself one on one to the people, is a great idea,” said Amy, a 73-year-old retired preschool teacher from Delray Beach, who declined to give her last name.
“I came out today because I find this particular situation intolerable,” she said as hazy storm clouds gathered over Klobuchar’s visit, the last of the day. “I consider this akin if not the same as concentration camps and I think this is not the America that I was born into. I’ll do everything I can to make sure this ends as soon as possible.”