How We Shut Down the Nation’s Largest Child Detention Center

Now the Trump Administration wants to reopen it.
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Protesters with American Friends Service Committee protest in Washington D.C. 

Photo by Carl Roose/AFSC

On the morning of Aug. 3, the last of more than 3,000 children were taken out of the Homestead detention center in Florida. The controversial detention center had served as an indefinite holding place for migrant youth, many of whom fled violence and poverty in Central America and were seeking asylum in the United States.

Homestead was an “emergency influx facility”—a designation used to skirt the Flores settlement agreement, which requires oversight and certain standards of care for children in detention. It was run by Caliburn—a for-profit prison operator that includes former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly on its board of directors, and cost taxpayers $1 million dollars a day to operate.

Children were not allowed to leave the compound, where they slept in military-type dorms, were constantly overseen by guards, and were prohibited from hugging anyone—even their siblings.

For months, the American Friends Service Committee, along with a coalition of local and national organizations, held rallies and vigils outside the center, wrote letters to the children inside, marched in the streets, and delivered more than 128,000 signatures to the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversaw the facility. We were determined to shut down the detention center before the school year started, rallying around the cry that children belong in schools, not prison camps.

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The public pressure worked. Most of the young people were placed with families and sponsors, in time to start the school year. Some were transferred to other smaller, state-licensed detention facilities. Homestead now stands empty.

But if the Trump administration has its way, it won’t be empty for long. And the number of children in detention will only grow.

Just last week, the administration announced it intends to terminate the Flores Settlement agreement, ending limits on the amount of time kids can be held in facilities that aren’t licensed to care for children.

The administration also announced it wants to build several new—and permanent—influx detention centers, which they want to make operational by the spring of 2020. And rather than shutting down the Homestead detention center permanently, the Department of Health and Human Services is retaining 1,200 beds and may start detaining children there again as early as October.

We can’t let this happen.

Since the beginning of the campaign, we have demanded that the government shut down Homestead detention center immediately, unite children with sponsors as quickly as possible, and pledge to never again open or operate an emergency influx center. For months we were told this was impossible. But once the government capitulated to public pressure, the detention center was emptied out in a matter of weeks.

Clearly the problem was not the impossibility of the task, but the lack of political will.

The Trump administration is manufacturing the need to detain children as part of its anti-immigrant agenda. Policies like family separation and the criminalization of immigrants are driving the increase in detention. As thousands of parents were ripped from their children and deported last year, the children were placed in the care of the Department of Health and Human Services. The government’s plan to terminate the Flores settlement agreement is designed to allow indefinite detention of whole families. And the consequences of these policies are deadly. In the last year alone, seven children have died after being taken into immigration custody. Families belong together but not in cages.

What if, instead of spending billions of dollars on building infrastructure designed to incarcerate children and adults, we invested that money in building communities where all children can thrive? What if Congress refused to fund emergency influx facilities and other forms of detention?

If our work in Homestead has taught us anything, it is that the tireless actions of thousands of people actually do have the power to make change. Even in a political climate imbued with racism and fear, we were able to shut down the largest detention center for migrant children in the country. And we won’t go back.

On Mother’s Day, hundreds of people took part in a protest organized by the AFSC and our partners outside of the detention center in Homestead. For hours, the crowd chanted and held signs, showing solidarity with the nearly 3,000 migrant children on the other side of the wall.

Los vemos. Los queremos. Estamos con ustedes,” the protestors cried out over the fence. “We see you. We love you. We are on your side.”

We need policymakers on our side, too. It’s time to end child detention.