The following passage comes from Senator Jeff Merkley’s forthcoming book, AMERICA IS BETTER THAN THIS: Trump's War Against Migrant Families, an exposé of the cruelty and chaos that the Trump administration has wrought at the border with child separations, border blockades, and a massive gulag of child prisons housing thousands. Few have witnessed what Merkley discovered just by showing up at Homestead in South Florida and demanding to look behind closed doors.
I visited Homestead as it was growing in early 2019 to see for myself how they were managing so many children in prison.
Homestead is located at the Homestead Air Reserve Base. It doesn’t have a state license and is operated by a for profit company: Comprehensive Health Services (CHS). One of the mysteries is how Homestead keeps order with so many stressed children.
“How do you enforce discipline?” I asked Leslie Wood, program director of Homestead. “You have all these kids from a variety of traumatic backgrounds. They are probably pretty stressed about their status and have a fair amount of anxiety about what lies ahead. It seems like there would be a fair amount of disciplinary challenges in that.”
I knew from earlier reports that there were concerns about Homestead using solitary confinement to discipline children. Not least because children used to walk around the prison wearing name tags that said “soli” on them. Those name tags disappeared when people started to ask questions.
Wood insisted that they never used solitary confinement—except if there was a health issue like a child with a fever.
“In order to keep them in line, do you ever tell them they won’t be able to leave the facility or get a placement with a sponsor if they misbehave?” I asked.
“Never,” she said. “I would fire anybody who told that to a child.”
Later on our tour of the prison, we were permitted to talk to three teenage boys who are part of the student government. I asked them if anybody ever said that if they misbehaved, it could affect their ability to leave here and be placed with a sponsor family.
All three of them immediately said, “Si, si, si.”
I turned to the director. “You said you didn’t do it, but all the boys just said absolutely yes. So how do you reconcile what you told me and what the boys told me?”
“Well it’s true,” she admitted. “If somebody misbehaves in a significant and serious way, it could affect their ability to be placed with a family. That is just the reality. If they have anger management problems or start a fight, it could affect their ability to be placed. We’re just telling them the honest truth.” The conversation reinforced how hard it is to get a straight answer from many officials in the immigration system.
I asked how long the children are held at Homestead, wondering if Homestead came closer than Tornillo to respecting the Flores twenty-day standard. The answer is no. At the time we visited, the average stay for a child was about two months. That is the average; many children have been locked up there for much longer.
There is another concern about Homestead. It sits at a site in Florida vulnerable to hurricanes. A Category Two storm could generate a six-foot wave hitting Homestead. Does Homestead have a complete evacuation plan ready? How will they get enough buses or planes to evacuate more than 3,000 children? Where will the children go? Wood tells me that a full plan is ready. Advocates believe that there is not a complete and adequate plan in place and that ORR is scrambling to figure out where and how to evacuate the children, even as another hurricane season is upon us. I hope the advocates are wrong.
Another concern is the for-profit status of the operator, CHS, a subsidiary of Caliburn International. CHS presents a fundamental conflict of interest. It makes money by keeping children locked up at its facility, even as it has the responsibility of expediting the transfer of children to state-licensed care facilities and sponsors. Thus, if it hires more case workers to get children placed more quickly with sponsors, which is what it should be doing, it loses money.
I’m deeply disturbed that in April 2019, former DHS Secretary John Kelly has taken a paid position on Caliburn’s board. Before he was DHS Secretary, Kelly sat on the board of a private equity firm, DC Capital Partners. In March 2017, just as Kelly as Secretary of DHS was cranking up the child separation strategy that would drive more children into CHS facilities, Kelly’s former firm bought CHS. In August 2018, Kelly’s former firm formed a new company, Caliburn, by combining CHS and two other companies. Now that Kelly is out of office, he is rewarded with a paid position on the Caliburn board, having supported and implemented policies in office that made DC Capital Partners and Caliburn a lot of money from the business of imprisoning children for profit. It is hard to imagine that CHS, under Caliburn’s direction, will expedite the transfer of children to sponsors or state-licensed facilities, even though that is their responsibility.
It is way past time for the oversight of Flores to be applied aggressively to Homestead.
The large majority of the migrant children locked up by the U.S. government are held in state-licensed detention centers. The numbers have gone up and down. The combined total for the influx in prisons and the detention centers hit a peak of nearly 15,000 in December 2018, and then dropped to 11,000 when ORR released 4,000 children right before Christmas. As of May 2019, the number was back near record highs, with over 13,000 children locked up.
If this was happening somewhere else, we would shake our heads in disbelief. Congress would pass resolutions condemning the policy and the practice. Human rights leaders would call for economic sanctions or boycotts. We would all wonder how any nation could go so far off track.
But this travesty is here, in our nation. Our beloved United States of America. Even if some people refuse to believe it—even if it sounds too shocking to be true—we need to confront the reality of what Donald Trump and his administration have done in the name of the American people. No one else will fix this. This responsibility is ours. We in America must be the ones to shine a light on it and put an end to it.
From the book AMERICA IS BETTER THAN THIS. Copyright (c) 2019 by Senator Jeff Merkley. Reprinted by permission of Twelve/Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.