Florida congresswomen slam decision on entry to detention facility

For the second time in three days, several members of the South Florida congressional delegation were denied entry to a facility housing undocumented minor children in Homestead.

Democratic Congresswomen Debbie Wasserman Shultz, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Donna Shalala tried to visit the facility Friday and again on Monday and were told they couldn’t enter.

The legislators said they wanted to tour the facility after the Trump administration announced last week that the government-run shelter was planning to increase the number of immigrant children housed at the facility – children who were separated from family members at the southern border as they tried to enter the United States – to 3,600 from the current 2,350.  

“That amounts to a more than 140 percent increase in beds in just four months,” Wasserman Schultz said in a statement.

She said her office notified the Department of Health and Human Services of the visit, in compliance with the law. “No notification is required, by the way, but we gave them multiple days notice that we would inspect this facility the following week

“The reasons are obvious,” she said. “In addition to the planned expansion, we’ve had troubling reports on the existing lack of staff, space and educational resources along with other concerns, namely that the children are being housed here entirely too long.”

HHS Secretary Alex Azar says that his agency now has over 12,300 migrant children in its care nationwide. While the agency is looking to match children with parents or close relatives, the caseload is still expanding because of the latest surge of migrants at the border, he testified during a recent Congressional hearing.

“[It’s] on pace to reach its highest level in a decade — [and] is straining the agency’s limited resources, he said.

Mucarsel-Powell, whose district includes the facility, previously visited the Homestead facility with Shalala and said they witnessed children living in cramped, prison-like conditions.

The Florida facility is the largest shelter in the country. It is the only one for migrant youth since one in Tornillo, Texas, shut down this year following numerous protests and reports of cramped and unhealthy conditions. The three congresswomen, along with other legislators, want the Homestead facility to also close and to reunite the children with parents or relatives as soon as possible. The legislators have criticized recent Trump administration comments that reuniting the minors could at this point take as long as two years.

The Florida congresswomen said they were told by an HHS official that the agency requires a two-week minimum notice to tour the facilities, but the congresswomen dispute that, saying that HHS is in violation of a federal regulation that says no time limit is required and that HHS cannot impose one.  

“Denying entry to oversee the conditions and care provided to the unaccompanied children in the Homestead facility would not only be a breach of transparency and confidence in the care provided there, it would violate the law,” the Florida legislators said in a statement. They added that they plan to take action when they return to Washington, up to and including legislation that would ban any prior notice for congressional visits to facilities housing foreign nationals. Wasserman Schultz introduced similar legislation last year but it went nowhere; a Democratic majority in the House now could change that.