As four federal lawmakers from Florida walked into the Homestead shelter housing 1,179 migrant children, five Miami-Dade and state elected officials were denied access to the facility on Saturday.
The five state and local Democrats who wanted to assess conditions in the shelter were dismayed when they were told they needed to request a tour two weeks in advance.
U.S. Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Frederica Wilson, Ted Deutch and Darren Soto entered the facility around 1 p.m., along with their staffs. Behind them trailed state Sens. Annette Taddeo and José Javier Rodriguez, state Rep. Kionne McGhee and Miami-Dade County Commissioners Barbara Jordan and Danielle Levine Cava — all of whom were told they would not be allowed access Saturday.
Huddled under a white tent under under a gray, rainy afternoon sky, they told reporters they were frustrated they could not enter.
"We're here locally. This is our local community. We know the community," Jordan said. "We want to see what's going on with those children."
Mark Weber, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs for Health and Human Services, told the lawmakers that HHS needed more notice to accommodate their requests. He said the lawmakers could tour the facility at a later date.
The Homestead complex, the second-largest shelter in the country, was opened by the Obama administration in June 2016 to temporarily house unaccompanied minors who crossed the border. It closed in April 2017 when the number of people crossing the border decreased significantly after President Donald Trump took office.
But the Trump administration quietly reopened the complex on March 29, shortly before the federal government adopted a zero-tolerance immigration policy that has resulted in the separation of children from their parents.
The site is home to 1,179 migrant children (792 boys and 387 girls) between the ages of 13 and 17, including 70 who had been separated from their families at the Mexican border, who are waiting to be reunited with relatives or guardians.
The majority come from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, program director Leslie Wood told the Miami Herald on Friday.
Levine Cava said that when the facility was open previously, Miami-Dade public school teachers were allowed in to teach the children and local community groups came in to provide services. After being denied access to the shelter Saturday, she criticized the federal government for not advising Miami-Dade and Homestead officials that migrant youth would be sheltered in complex.
"What's going on? What are the secrets? Why was this community not notified that these children were coming and who they were and how we could contribute and how we could participate," Levine Cava said.
McGhee emphasized his concern for the mental state of the youths in the shelter.
"It's not so much what the building looks like inside," McGhee said after a confrontation with an official from HHS. "It's what the psychological effects that these kids are being subjected to, that we may have a mental health crisis that's actually brewing in our area."
Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, who was scheduled to walk in with the other federal lawmakers, arrived about an hour later because of a delayed flight.
Nelson, who had been denied access earlier this week when he tried to enter with Wasserman Schultz, said 94 children separated at the border were being housed in the shelter, a large chunk of the at least 174 spread across the state.
Two other facilities in the county — His House Children Services near Miami Gardens and Boys Town in Cutler Bay — are housing displaced migrant kids, the lawmakers said.
A march against the separation of immigrant families is scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. Hundreds are expected to attend.
El Nuevo Herald staffers Brenda Medina and Luis Antonio Hernandez contributed to this report.