For a growing number of migrant children, this is their first home in America: a sprawling campus dotted with beige buildings, massive white tents and metal trailers, next door to a U.S. Air Force base.
The federal government is holding nearly 1,600 migrant children here, at what it calls a “temporary influx” shelter. It has added 250 beds in the last two months and could soon house 2,350 children who crossed the nation’s southern border on their own.
It is the country’s only such temporary quarters for migrant children, after the closure last month of a similar facility in south Texas, and the only shelter for migrant youths that is run by a for-profit company.
The site is a topic of heated debate, as immigration advocates and Democratic legislators complain many traumatized children who fled violence and poverty in their home countries are held in an institutionalized setting for too long before being released to sponsoring families who can better care for them.
Government officials say they are trying to safely release children to family members as fast as they can, and that the facility provides the first experience of stability that the children have had after long and often perilous journeys northward.
Their arduous journeys are not necessarily over: Some of the children will gain asylum, which can take years; others will be deported.
As the government seeks to rapidly expand the site’s capacity, it has waived a federal requirement at Homestead meant to ensure children receive sufficient health care. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which cares for the children, previously required Homestead to maintain a clinician-to-child ratio of 1 to 12 to provide mental health services, according to a November 2018 report. But that requirement has been relaxed to 1 to 20, a Homestead program director said on Wednesday.
The facility sits on federal property, and unlike established children’s shelters, such as smaller group or foster homes that hold migrant children across the country, is not governed by state child welfare regulations designed to protect youngsters from harm.
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On this day, as a steady rain poured down, children wearing clear plastic ponchos walked in single file lines around the grounds, attended by shelter staff. Some waved and yelled greetings in English and Spanish to visiting reporters.
The Trump administration opened the Homestead site’s doors to media on condition that reporters not interact with children or photograph or record them inside, which they said was to protect children’s privacy.
For these youths, aged 13-17, school is held in large white tents divided into small classrooms. Their instructors are not required to be certified teachers but must have a bachelor’s degree and speak English and Spanish.
The younger children sleep in rooms with six sets of bunk beds each. Seventeen-year-olds, who are housed separately, sleep in large, long “bays” with 144 beds each. The older children use toilet stalls in an attached tent.