Attorney Describes 'Prison-Like' Conditions of Homestead Detention Facility

Jun 6, 2019
Originally published on June 7, 2019 3:15 pm

The Trump administration announced Wednesday it will be drastically cutting federal aid to migrant childhood detention facilities.  The largest childhood detention facility in the United States is based in Homestead. It houses more than 2,000 children. The funding cuts mean the children will have no access to formal education, public attorneys or recess time.

The move comes just days after a 700-page document was filed in federal court by California-based attorneys. It described in extensive details the difficult conditions children at the facility are experiencing, including inadequate food, substandard education and only an hour each day outside. The federal court documents were filed by a group charged with overseeing the Flores settlement which sets limits on the length of time and conditions under which children can be held in immigration detention facilities.

J.J. Mulligan Sepulveda is an immigration attorney with U.C. Davis. He was among the team of attorneys that visited the facility. Sepulveda spoke with Sundial guest host Danny Rivero about his visit and the legal case against the center.

WLRN: Can you summarize some of the things that you directly heard from the children you spoke with?  

SEPULVEDA: The facilities are separated into a north and south side and on the north side there's 17-year-olds and on the south side there's 13- through 16-year-olds. And so if they're siblings, for example, they will be separated and they will only see each other for an hour a week. The food is subpar. You mentioned they're talking about cutting educational services. One of the chief complaints about kids was already the educational service they were receiving. When they go to classrooms they go to classrooms in this massive tent, which has classrooms separated into sort of these cubicle-like things where there's no roof. And so all the noise from all the classrooms sort of floods together and they can't hear anything of what the teachers are talking to them about.

They're indoors for 23 hours a day and so they're talking about cutting recreational activities. Those soccer balls and goals are the things they're using during their hour a day outside or the things that bring joy to them and make the other 23 hours bearable. 

So the facility itself is supposed to be temporary,  but some of the children have been there for a very long time. Am I getting that right?

It's makeshift in a temporary sense. The buildings are not there for a licensed childcare facility. It's an old Job Corps site that's been repurposed and was opened at one point during the Obama administration and then closed and now reopened. And then the idea now is to expand it, I believe, to 3,200 kids, which I don't know where they would fit those. 

How long had these children been in the center?

I spoke with one girl who had been there around seven months. There's case managers that try and work with the children to be reunited with their sponsors.  Her aunt was the one who was trying to receive her and they'd been asking her to prove the relationship by providing photos to them. And this was a young girl from the mountains of Guatemala who'd never seen a cell phone before. And so she couldn't provide any photos to show the relationship. And so they just kept delaying and delaying and delaying the process. And little by little she was getting more and more frustrated. She was there for seven months when I spoke with her and she cried immediately. 

One of the ways you were able to get in and get access was because you're a part of this group that exercises oversight with the Flores agreement. Can you explain to us exactly what that agreement is and what the significance of it is in this case? 

Well, it's a very significant legal instrument because it defines the basic conditions and confinement of how accompanied and unaccompanied minors can be detained within the United States. And it's sort of a mini constitution for undocumented immigrant children. And as I'm sure people have read in the news, the Trump administration has made it a priority to get rid of the Flores settlement agreement. Because from their words, they believe that people are coming to this country only because of the protections being provided in agreements like this and that they need to be able to detain families together for longer periods of time. So they're saying that it's to protect children. But it's an absurd argument because you wouldn't tell a soldier going to war that he's safer without armor. 

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