US Senator Bill Nelson, Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Florida State Rep. Kionne McGhee were denied entry to a facility in Homestead where an estimated 1,000 undocumented children are being held under the supervision of the Department of Health and Human Services.
"They are obviously trying to cover up. They don't want us to see it," said Nelson. "This is absolutely ridiculous. I am ashamed of this administration that they are doing this."
"This is a decision at the highest levels," added Sen. Nelson.
On Monday, Wasserman Schultz unveiled in a roundtable event that an estimated 1,000 children are being held in the facility. It is unclear how many of them have been separated from their families after crossing the border, and how many of them crossed the border alone.
In front of the Homestead facility, Wasserman Schultz told reporters that she just learned of other centers holding undocumented children in South Florida.
"We have two permanent facilities here in Miami Gardens and in Cutler Bay that are housing much younger children, most of whom have been torn from their parents at the border," said Wasserman Schultz. She plans to try to gain entry to those facilities next week, she said.
The federal government announced in May that as a matter of policy children would be removed from the custody of their parents not only when they cross the border illegally, but when they cross the border illegally and turn themselves in to ask for asylum. Previously, parents claiming asylum would be able to remain with their children as they await a court hearing for their cases, a process which can take years.
“I have put in place a zero-tolerance policy on illegal entry on our southwest border. If you cross the border unlawfully, we will prosecute you. It’s that simple,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said on May 7.
Since then, there have also been reports of people being turned away while trying to file for asylum at official ports of entry, an established legal process.
On Monday, reporters at the Miami Herald caught glimpses of undocumented children playing a soccer match at the Homestead facility, but they were denied access and threatened with arrest if they didn't leave the vicinity.
As the Senator, Congresswoman and State Representative tried to gain access, they were denied. Wasserman Schultz explained that she had been given permission to enter the facility by the contractor, only to be denied by the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement.
She was told by the contractor on Tuesday morning that "we would be welcomed warmly and be able to see the facility and ask questions," she said.
She was referring to Comprehensive Health Services, a Cape Canaveral-based company that is running the facility, according to $30 million federal procurement contract posted online.
The Department of Human Services also paid $2.3 million to California-based company American Canyon Solutions, Inc. for “facility management services at the emergency temporary shelter” in Homestead. In past contracts the company has received as far back as 2015, the services provided to the federal government include “shelter care for undocumented children.”
The current American Canyon Solutions contract was awarded on May 23, two weeks after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the policy shift.
Wasserman Shultz said that she was told conflicting things by the Department of Health and Human Services. She said she was alternately told that she needed to give two weeks notice in order to visit the facility, that she was told a 24-hour notice was needed, and that the 24-hour notice was only valid after the Department acknowledged and accepted the request.
"This is a federally contracted facility here. This is the involvement of federal funds, in my state of Florida, and we are being denied entry to see about the welfare of children," said Nelson.