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Democratic candidates visit migrant detention center in South Florida

All were denied entry.

The new must-visit South Florida landmark for Democratic presidential hopefuls is a place so exclusive and secretive that most have no shot of getting through the front door.

Other than the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, no location in Miami will receive more attention from 2020 candidates and campaigns around the first presidential primary debates this week than the Homestead detention center for migrant children, the largest shelter for unaccompanied minors in the country.

On Wednesday alone, activist actress Alyssa Milano and Jane O’Meara Sanders, wife of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, paid visits, followed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren and two buses full of supporters and, a few hours later, by Sen. Amy Klobuchar. All were denied entry, as was California Congressman Eric Swalwell when he visited Monday. Despite that, former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former HUD secretary Julián Castro, Sens. Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand and author Marianne Williamson are expected to stop by later this week.

Only current members of Congress had any real shot at getting inside due to a federal policy strictly limiting access to the facility. But actually seeing how the children in the shelter are cared for isn’t entirely the point.

For presidential candidates, the only temporary child shelter in the country is the perfect backdrop for a campaign against Trump’s hard-line immigration stance and condemnations of the federal government’s treatment of immigrant families. Outside of the border wall, there are few comparable symbols in the country of the rift between Democrats and Republicans on immigration policy.

“This is wrong,” said Warren, who arrived Wednesday in an orange ball cap similar to those worn by children at the facility. “We do not need for-profit companies that then come and lobby Washington to keep our broken immigration policies functioning because they are making bigger and bigger profits.”

Though it’s likely that none of the candidates will actually tour the shelter this week, inside there are around 2,400 teenagers awaiting news that the federal government has found a guardian living legally in the country and they’ll be transferred out. Until then, the children — mostly from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — live in a facility operated at an expense of around $1 billion a year by a for-profit company tied to President Donald Trump’s former chief of staff.

Due to funding issues — it costs the government about $750 a day per child at the center — the children at the shelter receive no federally funded education, few legal services and little recreation. Democrats say conditions at the South Miami-Dade facility are worse than a federal prison — characterizations that Caliburn, parent company of vendor Comprehensive Health Services, says are “a false and deceptive description to mislead the public and score political points.”

“The truth is the children at the Homestead temporary emergency shelter are provided a wide range of services — medical and behavioral care, daily educational classes, recreational exercise both inside and outside,” said Tetiana Anderson, a Caliburn spokeswoman. “The physical and emotional well-being of each and every child is the shelter’s primary concern.”

The company, though, is as much a lightning rod as the center.

Warren, who announced her visit Tuesday evening during a town hall at Florida International University, is among the lawmakers who have demanded an investigation into the circumstances around former Trump chief of staff Gen. John Kelly’s ascension to the Caliburn board of advisers shortly before CHS was awarded a $341 million no-bid management contract to continue running the center. She has also proposed legislation to ban private prisons and detention centers.

Meanwhile, the focus around the Trump administration’s treatment of children is intense right now, with acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner John Sanders announcing Tuesday that he’s resigning following reports that hundreds of children were being housed in reportedly unsanitary conditions in a Texas CBP facility. Also this week, disturbing images surfaced of a father and his 2-year-old daughter who reportedly drowned Monday in the Rio Grande after trying to swim to the U.S.

“Immigration reform should be a top issue in this presidential election,” said U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who represents the southernmost district in the U.S., where the Homestead shelter is located. “Every 2020 presidential candidate ought to visit the Homestead Detention Center and join us in denouncing Trump’s cruel immigration policies. We need to place these children in safe homes and facilities and close this detention center down.”

The Health and Human Services Administration, which is tasked with caring for unaccompanied migrant children, says the temporary shelter is a crucial cog in a system that has to accommodate massive influxes of migrants and refugees. Capacity at the shelter — first opened at a former U.S. Job Corps site to handle a temporary influx of migrant children and then closed under President Barack Obama — has expanded three times amid an unprecedented spike in southwest border apprehensions.

But the center has been a flash point in the immigration debate ever since the Trump administration reopened it early last year amid a short-lived policy of separating families when they crossed the border. Activists have been practically camped outside the shelter for months, demanding its closure and attracting national media attention.

On Monday, Mucarsel-Powell invited all the 2020 candidates to accompany her Friday to the shelter. According to her staff, the campaigns of Buttigieg, Castro, Gillibrand and Harris all told her they’re coming. Williamson and O’Rourke had already planned to visit.

But where normally Mucarsel-Powell enters the facility to talk to children and administrators, it’s likely they’ll have to settle for a press event outside due to the government’s demands that visits be set up two weeks in advance. Swalwell, the first 2020 candidate to visit the shelter, said he was turned away Monday without an answer as to how the children inside were doing.

“I asked if the kids inside were ok,” he said in a statement. “An official from the facility declined to say yes or no.”

Swalwell’s campaign didn’t respond to questions about whether he’d tried to set up a visit in advance.

The possibility that none of the Democratic presidential candidates thought to arrange a visit ahead of time may speak to the suddenness of the campaign stops, since the Miami debates were set months in advance. But state Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Colombian immigrant who represents Kendall, said it’s good that the candidates are showing up and bringing media attention to the shelter — and the cost of running it.

“Heck, I just went to Disney, and including park tickets, including a Disney hotel, including food, I didn’t spend $750 a day,” she said.

Miami Herald reporters Monique O. Madan and David Smiley wrote this story. Joey Flechas and Samantha Gross contributed to this report.