As calls for action on the border crisis grow louder, a facility housing thousands of unaccompanied migrant children in Florida has become a major stop for Democratic presidential candidates.
The facility in Homestead holds 2,300 immigrant children in a massive compound tucked behind a chain link fence. Posted on the fence is a stern warning: “U.S. Govt. Property NO Trespassing.”
Inside the compound, under the watchful eye of workers in blue shirts, children walk around in orange caps to shield them from the glaring summer heat. Across the street, protesters carrying signs that read “Free the Children” and “Shut it down” use step ladders to peek over the fence.
Katie Berendsohn, one of the activists gathered outside the facility, said they noticed the orange caps worn by the children.
“They chose prison orange, which if you’re trying to say that this is not a child’s prison was really a rather foolish thing,” Berendsohn said. “It really still is a prison for children.”
Presidential candidates take notice
Immigration advocates have pushed for the closure of the Homestead facility for months, decrying what they describe as unfavorable conditions for children.
Several Democratic presidential candidates have taken notice and made plans to visit the facility – one of 168 operated in 23 states by the US Department of Health and Human Services.
Hours before 10 candidates took the stage for the party’s first debate in Miami on Wednesday, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren rushed to the detention center accompanied by a few dozen supporters bussed by her campaign after the senator publicly invited people to join her.
Warren said she was not allowed to enter the facility about 40 miles from Miami, and stood atop a ladder with a hat and sunglasses in the 90-degree heat to wave to children behind the fence. She said some looked down and a few waved back.
“There weren’t children playing. There weren’t children laughing the way children usually do when they’re moving from one place to another,” she told reporters after the visit. “These were children who were being marched like little soldiers, like little prisoners, from one place to another. This is not what we should be doing as a country.”
More candidates are coming
While some candidates had long planned to visit the detention facility during their trip to Miami for the debate, Warren’s announcement seemingly set off a wave of announced visits.
Jane Sanders, wife of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, stopped by the facility Wednesday, telling reporters one of her husband’s first executive actions as president would be to shut down facilities like the one in Homestead.
Aides to former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and California Sen. Kamala Harris all said they would visit the facility Friday.
Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke was the first candidate to announce he planned to visit the Homestead detention facility. He plans to go Thursday following the debates the night prior.
Children there are not allowed to hug, advocate says
Immigration advocate Melissa Taveras has pushed for the closure of the Homestead facility, arguing that the detention of children should not be normalized.
Conditions in Homestead are not favorable for children, she said. The immigrant minors held there are not allowed to hug and have limited access to a phone to call their parents, Taveras said.
“They are told that if they misbehave or not do what they are told, they are going to be moved to a place which is worse and they are going to be separated from their parents permanently,” she said. “They are limited to about two calls per week, with very limited time on the phone.” CNN has reached out to the Health and Human Services.
Thousands discharged from the facility
Taveras urged politicians to come up with a solution to the immigration crisis. “Children do not belong in detention centers. And we require comprehensive immigration reform at the national level,” she said.
Outside the facility, the cars parked there tell their own stories.
“Beto For America,” one bumper sticker says. “Anyone but Trump 2020,” reads another on the same Nissan Altima.
Health and Human Services activated the center last year. Since opening in March 2018, more than 13,300 minors have been placed at the site and 10,800 of them discharged to a suitable sponsor, according to the HHS.
The thousands of children housed there are between ages 13-17 and stay for an average 44 days before they’re released to suitable sponsors, it says. But critics have said some of the minors have stayed there for months.