Column: Unite children with their families. Don't hold them for profit in detention centers.

Immigrant children walk in a line outside the Homestead temporary shelter for unaccompanied children. [AP photo (2018) by Brynn Anderson]
Immigrant children walk in a line outside the Homestead temporary shelter for unaccompanied children. [AP photo (2018) by Brynn Anderson]
Published April 24, 2019

The children waved to us as I stood on a ladder and waved a giant heart at them from the other side of the road.

They know witnesses are there and they look for us.

I visited the Homestead "temporary influx facility" for immigrant youth, operated by a private contractor called Comprehensive Health Services, on Easter Sunday, compelled to learn more about an atrocity happening right here in Florida.

Before I left, I knew little about the place so I did some homework, joined a Facebook group of witnesses and read media coverage, including the Miami Herald. What I learned is that, regardless of our political ideology on immigration, there is little to no defense of this situation.

An estimated 2,300 youth are housed at the facility, with another 1,000 expected, as evidenced by the construction taking place around the existing facilities. It is the biggest shelter for unaccompanied minors in the country. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement has awarded between $200 million and $356 million so far just to this center, but there are more and more on the way. Most are public facilities while this one is privately held and less information is available about the numbers and ages of children there.

While the center opened with fewer than 1,000 youth, the Miami Herald points out that Comprehensive Health Services receives $775 per child per day, three times what a non-temporary shelter charges — around $250. Under the Flores act, unaccompanied alien minors have rights protected and that all minors — accompanied by their parents or not — cannot be held for more than 20 days.

The average stay at Homestead's "temporary" center is at least 60 days, which is an apparent violation of federal law. Most of the children have family members in the United States who want them, are waiting and sometimes cannot find them. Most advocates cite the "temporary" allotment of 20 days as more than adequate to find, connect and release youth to these U.S.-based families.

But what incentive does a profit-making private company have to comply? The more children and more days means more money. How much money is easy to figure out: $775/day times 2,300 children. Assuming there are only 2,300 children — and we saw a van filled with new youth arrive on Easter — taxpayers are footing the bill for this at $1,782,500 per day.

How is it possible that citizens stand by as these private profiteers continue to gain economically, plunging our country into questionable morality? This is a prison, it feels like a prison and looks like one. These children can and should be united with their families.

It's not about security or deterrence, that much is clear. We need to challenge this as an act of patriotism. We are better than this.

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Alayne Unterberger is director of the Florida Institute for Community Studies in Tampa, but she visited the detention center as a private citizen.