Rep. Pocan calls for oversight of private Florida detention center 

By: - July 17, 2019 7:00 am
Migrant children at Homestead

The Homestead Detention Center is a temporary shelter for migrant children. (Photo courtesy of American Friends Service Committee)

On Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan held a press call to report on his recent trip to the Homestead Influx Facility in Miami, Florida — a temporary shelter for migrant children run by the private prison operator Caliburn International. 

Pocan, a Democrat who represents Wisconsin’s 2nd District, sits on the House Committee on Appropriations. He said that after what he witnessed at the facility, he will hold an oversight hearing next week. 

Homestead, the largest facility housing migrant children in the United States, is run under a contract with the Department of Health and Human Services. The shelter has been the target of intense criticism for its prison-like conditions. To immigrant-rights activists camped outside, who are demanding that it be closed, it is a symbol of the Trump Administration’s family-separation policy.

The Department of Health and Human Services recently announced that it would cut the child population at the center by more than half, from 1,300 to 2,700, but said the center will remain open.

Rep. Mark Pocan

During his tour, Pocan said he spoke with several young girls who had been staying at the facility for between 60 and 75 days. He was bothered, he said, by one girl’s report that facility staff had only reached out to her brother last week, after she had already been in the facility for nearly 60 days. 

It is HHS policy to try to reunite children with family members as quickly as possible, Pocan noted. “But that doesn’t always happen.” 

“When a facility is making $750 a day to warehouse people, there’s maybe not the greatest incentive to move people out of that system,” he said.

Pocan said he pressed officials at the facility on the $750-per-day price tag. “I was told there’s a lot of cost to putting together these facilities initially. The problem is, Homestead has been there quite a while, so we are not getting real answers on the cost.”

The number of migrant children at the center has clearly dropped by more than 1,000 in recent weeks, Pocan said, adding that he could not get information about whether those children were reunited with their families or moved to other facilities. He attributed the sudden drop to intense scrutiny of conditions at the center, as well as the arrival of hurricane season.

“I was told they have to be under 1,200 people for a hurricane-evacuation plan,” Pocan said. “The odd thing is for some reason they refuse to share their hurricane evacuation plan with officials in Florida, which really left us puzzled.”

Pocan was particularly struck by the large “education area” he toured. Teachers were using microphones to address groups of students and the din was “so incredibly loud I don’t know how anyone could possibly think.”

He played a recording he made of the chaotic background noise for reporters. 

Another area that left Pocan unsatisfied was the issue of mental health care at the center.

Most of the children at the center had fled violence in their home countries, he pointed out. “Then they’ve just traveled this unbelievable journey – added trauma — been separated from their families, and then put in this facility for 75 days.”

Yet when asked, center officials could not say how many mental healthcare professionals they had on staff. 

“It was stunning,” Pocan said.

Meetings and mental-health assessments are mostly conducted via Skype with counselors in Texas, Pocan said. There are also some on-the-ground mental-health workers in Florida, he added, “but they have no idea of the number.”

“This is not proper,” Pocan concluded. 

While he did not witness the “horror story” scenarios that have been reported in some youth detention centers on the border, the level of care and education of children at Homestead is grossly inadequate, he said, “especially at $750 a day.” 

“We are essentially warehousing people in bunk beds. I cannot understand why the cost is $750 a day when you can stay at the Trump Hotel or the Four Seasons for less than that.”

The influx of unaccompanied children at housed at Homestead and other facilities is a product of the Trump administration’s practice of separating families at the border, he added. “We are creating this problem with U.S. policy.”




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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is the author of "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" which won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel award from The New Press. She is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.