By Anne Bridgman
There are no more children at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Migrant Children. When I heard the news that Homestead had transferred its last child — due, they said, to a hurricane threat — I was surprised not to feel elated. After all, this was the goal of the group of activists and witnesses I’ve worked with for the last six months. Instead, I feel profoundly sad.
For much of this year, Homestead was the largest for-profit child detention facility in the U.S., holding approximately 2,000 to 3,000 children ages 8 to 17. It’s located on an Air Reserve Base in Homestead, Florida, south of Miami.
I traveled to Homestead in April to bear witness, and saw the children when they were outside an hour a day in a field we could see only from stepladders. Democratic presidential hopefuls stood on the same stepladders the week of the debates in Miami, decrying the detention of children who came to the U.S. fleeing severe violence and poverty in Central America. Many had family members and sponsors here awaiting their arrival.
At Homestead, the children were held under a profoundly rigid, almost military-precision level of control, which led Amnesty International to demand the facility’s closure. Members of Congress were denied entry without two weeks’ notice. Lawyers’ depositions of 75 children in Homestead painted a portrait of kids who were anxious, girls who self-harmed, and youth who feared being punished for rules that forbid them to even comfort a crying friend.
Caliburn, the for-profit company operating Homestead, received $775 per child per day. Trump’s former chief of staff, who helped craft the family-separation policy, is a board member.
So why don’t I feel happy that no children remain at Homestead?
First, the children may be gone from Homestead but we have no idea where they are. How many have been reunited with families? How many have been sent to other detention facilities? How are they being treated there? Who is tucking them in at night?
Homestead may be empty (for now) but there are more than 150 other child detention centers in the U.S. holding about 10,000 children. Many facilities have been criticized for how they treat children and allegations of abuse are being investigated. Because there are so many and they are spread across the country, it is impossible to witness and find out what is going on at each one. Because our government is run by people who condone family separation and child detention, and because of the lack of transparency about places our tax dollars fund, we know so little about what is really happening. Even though we weren’t allowed inside Homestead, we saw things we wouldn’t have had we not been there. It feels as if we have lost something because this opportunity no longer exists.
Also, what will happen to the thousands of children who are identified (some incorrectly) as having no sponsor? Will they spend years in detention facilities not designed for long-term care? Will they be “cared for” by people who think they are “bad” and not worthy of comfort, as an undercover Homestead employee recently said he was told during training?
What about the mental health of these children? We know that separating children from their parents and holding them in detention harms their development. We also know that the trauma continues even after they’re reunited with family. What our government has done and is doing will have lifelong consequences. Even after they’re released, it will be extremely difficult to find counseling for the children, in part because they lack status and money.
Finally, when will Homestead reopen? The facility isn’t closed. Why are they keeping employees there? Will more children come in the fall? Will Homestead become a detention facility for adults? When will the scores of questions asked by members of Congress last month of the Office of Refugee Resettlement be answered?
So many people across the nation came together to witness, protest and stand up for the voiceless children of Homestead. Now that the facility is empty, I am left to mourn the shell game that my government is playing and wish for answers to the many questions that remain.
Anne Bridgman is a writer, editor and activist in Eugene