Amnesty visited the only temporary influx shelter for unaccompanied children seeking safety in the United States. This is what we saw.

By Ashley Houghton, Tactical Campaigns Manager

Last week, Amnesty researchers and other staff visited the Homestead Temporary Influx Care Facility, the only “emergency” shelter, as it’s popularly known, housing unaccompanied minors in the United States. Homestead is part of a network of shelters for unaccompanied children housed under the care of the Office for Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which in turn is part of the U.S. Department for Health and Human Services (HHS). These shelters aren’t run by the U.S Department of Homeland Security, though the children at Homestead have come directly from the border once Customs and Border Protection processes them. There are about 100 permanent shelters in addition to the Homestead emergency shelter.

These children — each between the age of 13 and 17 — are seeking humanitarian protection in the U.S. (often asylum) and are awaiting unification with a sponsor — most frequently a family member or family friend who can house them while they wait for their asylum case to be heard.

The temporary influx designation prevents Homestead from being held to the same national standards of care for children under the 1997 Flores Agreement, such as education, as permanent shelters. And because Homestead is on federal land, it is not licensed by the state of Florida, adding another loophole.

But what does that look like in person?

It looks like children without a childhood.

More than 2,000 children were being held in this facility at once when we visited, sometimes in rooms with 144 beds (72 bunk beds). Due to the massive size of this facility, children are managed with a profoundly rigid, almost military-precision level of control.

Children walk in lines everywhere, and each child wears a badge around their neck at all times. The badge has a barcode that shelter staff scan as they enter every new building. Every part of their day is regimented, starting at 6:30am and ending at 10:00pm with “lights out.” A service form is required for most basic services at the shelter, including access to an attorney and even requesting sanitary napkins. Some children have no in-person case management teams, and instead Skype off-site with case managers and cliniciansin El Paso, Texas.

Homestead has been compared to a prison. No, the staff do not carry guns, and there’s no barbed wire. There are licensed social workers and doctors and other staff looking to provide care. But the precision is striking, and the children there do not freely leave. In contrast, children held in nearby permanent shelters in some cases go on field trips, enjoying local arts and culture, as part of their fuller and more appropriate educational programs.

I noticed how young the 13-year-olds looked in these rigid circumstances, prohibited from hugging each other. Children need unstructured time to run and to play. They need to have small enough care settings that someone will notice they’re missing, rather than relying on bar codes.

This facility is growing and designed for scale, not for care centered on the “best interests” of these children. This is the human rights standard we advocate for, and the basis for Flores, whether we’re looking at the forcible separation of children from their parents at the border last summer, the detention of families for seeking safety, or unaccompanied children in shelters.

At the time of our arrival, there were (according to the program coordinator) 2,059 children in custody, with capacity for 2,142. They planned to expand to 2,350 “as soon as they could staff up.” However, after we left the facility, we learned that Homestead had recently been directed by HHS to expand and receive up to 3,200 children beginning mid-April.

This is not the solution. The solution is to hold Homestead to the same standards as permanent shelters, with the same level of child-centered care provided by other institutions. The solution is to reunite these children with sponsors and family members as quickly as possible, much faster than the over two-month average that children are currently being held. And the solution is to increase the transparency and accountability of this temporary influx shelter, so that care there is provided based on the best interest of the child.

The solution is not to meet the lowered standard of care for an “emergency shelter” but to provide the best care for children.

There’s a process in place, Congressionally mandated and overseen by ORR, to help unaccompanied children seeking safety here. The question is whether the Administration will resource and support the process so that kids get the care they deserve and are obligated.