Private prison housing UACs draws congressional scrutiny
The Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children was at the center of an impassioned debate about how to deal with the increase in UACs crossing the southern border.
Private prisons may be getting their financial hooks into the processing of unaccompanied minors.
The House Committee on Appropriations sub-committee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies held a hearing entitled, “Oversight of the Unaccompanied Children (UAC) Program: Ensuring Safety of Children in HHS Care”.
UAC crossing the border first became an issue under then President Obama in 2014, when more than 57,000 UACs crossed the border; just through the end of May 2019, approximately 52,000 crossed the border, according to data provided by the Office of Refugee and Resettlement data.
This includes 8,900 in April and 11,507 in May, according to a story in Politico.
Overwhelmingly the UACs come from the Northern Triangle of Central America - Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador - according to the same data.
Another witness at the hearing was fellow Congressman Michael Burgess, a Republican from Texas.
“The unprecedented surge in the number of unaccompanied children and family units crossing our southern border this year has stretched a system never designed to handle the current volume,” Burgess stated.
Burgess also explained that when they arrive in the US they are transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee and Resettlement (ORR).
The current Director of ORR is Jonathan Hayes, who also testified.
With unprecedented numbers of UACs entering the US, HHS has had at least one contractor take over housing them.
One such facility is Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in Homestead, Florida, run by the homeland security and private prison company, Caliburn International.
President Trump’s former Chief of Staff John Kelly is on Caliburn’s board.
This hearing was not the first time Homestead found itself embroiled in controversy.
The treatment of children at Homestead was the subject of an investigation by Amnesty International and a story in the Miami Herald earlier this month.
Amnesty International, noted in its report, “is a facility designed to warehouse children….It provides care in a large-scale, industrial setting with thousands of children adhering to highly regimented schedules. The children are deprived of individualized care, attention and the freedom to be children in age-appropriate ways.”
The report continued: “Children should not be detained. It is never in their best interests. Detention has well-documented negative effects on children’s development and can cause long-term trauma and disability. If children are detained, they must only be detained as a last resort for the shortest possible time and in the least restrictive setting possible.”
This facility became the source of much controversy at the hearing.
Debbie Wasserman-Schultz is a Democrat from Florida and Homestead is in her district. She said she attempted to visit the facility four times but was only allowed in twice.
She said that the chair of the committee sent out a request a week in advance of Wasserman-Schultz’s most recent visit, the previous week.
“This was all the time ORR needed to present a prefabricated tour to present the rosiest picture,” Wasserman-Schultz said. “The private contractor who operates this facility ushered us from one orchestrated stop to the next. It was tightly regimented; our interactions with the detained children were limited. An employee always stood very close by. We were given greater access to four student council leaders who were chosen by the contractor.
“A posted bulletin board had timelines dealing when staff would notify ICE about kids approaching their 18th birthday. These children had to be transferred out of Homestead and ORR care and we were told these young adults are arrested by ICE, handcuffed, and sent to an ICE adult prison. Children often dread this date, many become suicidal as the date nears.”
Lucille Roybal Allard is a Democrat from California; during her question and answer period she also asked about those turning 18 being transferred to ICE.
“One day a person is a child in a protected environment, and the next day they are put in handcuffs like a criminal and taken to adult detention on their 18th birthday,” Roybal Allard said.
Roybal Allard noted her belief that the children were being turned over to ICE because HHS was not developing an alternative to detention.
Roybal is the chair of the House Committee on Appropriations sub-committee on Homeland Security, making her the first Latina to chair a sub-committee on the Appropriations Committee.
She said that the most common answer to most questions was, “we will get back to you.”
She was also troubled by the educational curriculum in Homestead.
“The private company running the facility performs an academic assessment, one the company made up themselves.” Wasserman-Schultz said. “We have no idea what standards they use, and children are not taught by certified teachers, or frequently even by people with any teaching experience.”
HHS announced an expansion of Homestead from 1,350 to 3,200 beds since January 2019, Wasserman-Schultz said.
Donna Shalala is a Democrat from Florida; she has inspected the Homestead facility.
She stated, “The children housed at the Homestead facility are between the ages of 13 and 17. Despite their youth, they have already faced unfathomable hardship including poverty and violence in their home countries, and the journey they have made to our country. I have seen the prison like conditions in which they are kept. They’re closely monitored, unable to leave the compound, kept in military camp-like rooms, one of them with up to 150 children per room, and barred from even hugging their friends and siblings.”
She continued, “What’s more, the Homestead facility is for profit. Caliburn has received a no bid $300 million contract extension. We are letting a private company make money off running a detention center for children.”
Burgess and other Republicans defended Homestead.
“In flux facilities like Homestead allow the Department of HHS to care for some children and those who are expected to be placed with a sponsor quickly for a shorter period of time. I visited Homestead with several Democratic members of Congress.” Burgess said during his opening statement. “The conditions I found, the conditions I saw, were comfortable and age appropriate. Children were provided three meals a day plus snacks. They were given new clothes plus education.”
Clay Higgins is a Republican from Louisiana, and he also defended the work done to process the UACs.
“With depleted resources and overburdened infrastructure, operating at two, three, [and] four hundred percent capacity, these men and women - primarily of Hispanic descent, Hispanic origin virtually all - have done their best,” Higgins said.
Higgins said he also visited an ORR facility and said, “The facility I observed had a six to one ratio of social staff that included medical supervision, etc. I noticed that the building was unsecured to an extent, regarding exit, and I asked these professionals what stops these kids from leaving. He said, ‘they enjoy the structure, first time in their lives they’ve had some structure.’”