HOMESTEAD, Fla. — When you first look around, everything seems normal: hundreds of kids, some in classrooms, others playing soccer, others in the dining hall or in their dorm rooms.
Soon, though, it becomes clear that something is wrong. None of the youngsters are holding cellphones or tablets. And they all have stern or sad expressions on their faces, as if they’re holding something back. Eventually, you realize what the problem is: These children aren’t allowed to leave. They’re in detention.
I recently visited the Homestead Job Corps center in southern Florida, a detention facility serving roughly 1,600 children between the ages of 13 and 17, most of them from Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador. At the time of my visit, 3 out of 4 were boys. (You can watch a video of my visit here)
The Homestead children endured shocking experiences to reach the United States. They fled violence, gangs and extreme poverty, and made the journey across Mexico (which, according to many Central Americans, is the worst part of the trip north) unaccompanied. They then crossed the U.S. border illegally or surrendered themselves to immigration authorities at a legal port of entry.
All of the children at Homestead were wearing new clothes — they looked just like regular teenagers anywhere else in the world. Unfortunately, I couldn’t talk to any of them. I was only allowed to visit Homestead Job Corps on the condition that I did not interact with any of the minors housed there (a measure to protect them, the authorities said). Each child spends an average of 58 days at the detention facility, which is run by a private company that, according to one of the managers, receives around $750 per child per day, from the U.S. government.
Children at Homestead are only allowed to make two 10-minute phone calls each week: One to their home country and the other, usually, to relatives in the United States hoping to sponsor them out of federal custody. They learn the telephone numbers by heart; one of the few times I saw them smile was during those phone calls. After a long and cumbersome legal process, the children can be released to the care of their sponsors, who can be a parent, an uncle, an aunt or any other family member. If a child has no relatives in the United States, his or her friends can serve as sponsors. If all else fails, the child may end up in an orphanage or foster home.
Something horrible happens, however, if these kids turn 18 while still at Homestead. They don’t get a cake or a party; instead, they get handcuffed and released to the custody of officers from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who take them to a prison or an adult detention center. Once there, they await deportation proceedings.
There are over 100 detention centers for child immigrants spread across 17 U.S. states, and many of them are operating at near full capacity or planning to expand. Why? Because the number of unaccompanied minors crossing the border is on the rise.
In 2012, 13,625 children were held in facilities administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. That number spiked in 2018, when 49,100 minors were detained. And 2019 may well break all records.
Why is the U.S. government holding children in detention facilities for months? Aren’t there better ways to deal with child immigrants who cross the border alone? Is it really necessary to cuff a boy’s hands and feet just because he turns 18?
Our laws direct the government to oversee, through the Department of Health and Human Services, the custody of every child under 18 entering the country illegally, if that child is not accompanied by a parent or “legal guardian.” A manager at Homestead told me during my visit that this is “a great government program.” Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro, however, has said that these kinds of facilities are part of a “morally bankrupt system.”
The facade of normalcy at Homestead comes crumbling down when you realize that the children there are being held against their will. I was told that only two of them managed to escape in the past year.
The most powerful country in the world should be doing much more for the region’s most vulnerable children. A Hollywood film would portray them as heroes overcoming adversity; here, they are nothing more than prisoners.