Numerous 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls in Florida this week for the first set of debates took a detour to stop at the nation’s largest child migrant detention center – turning the privately run facility outside of Miami into a symbol of what they say is the Trump administration’s harsh treatment of young migrants.
The administration argues that congressional Democrats share responsibility and has faulted them for slow-walking badly needed funding. But amid that fight on Capitol Hill, candidates including Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke were all visiting the Homestead Detention Center, making it a backdrop for their message.
“The United States shouldn’t be imprisoning young people who walked 1,000 miles or more to save their lives,” Sanders, who will be on the debate stage Thursday night, said outside the facility. “All I can say is that in the United States of America, most of us do not want to lock up thousands of kids, especially when these kids have relatives who want to take them in.”
Immigration and the treatment of young migrants has become a galvanizing issue in the country following the drownings earlier this week of a Salvadoran man and his toddler daughter, captured by a journalist in a searing photograph, and reports about unsanitary and poor conditions at certain detention centers.
President Trump blamed Democrats, saying their party refuses to fund his immigration priorities and change laws for entering the country.
“The only ones delaying help for the children are the Democrats,” the White House said in a statement. “They falsely claimed all year that the situation at the border was a “manufactured crisis” and denied desperately needed humanitarian funding for months. They have refused to work with Republicans to end incentives for the human trafficking that takes advantage of women and children, or to end the surge of cartels bringing in illegal drugs.”
Democrats, however, accuse the Republican president of preventing families from seeking asylum and of holding migrant children in filthy conditions, such as the ones found last week by a team of lawyers at a border facility in Clint, Texas.
Warren, who went to the Homestead center before her debate debut Wednesday night, unveiled last week her plan to ban private detention providers and also called out Caliburn International, the private company behind the Homestead site, for recently appointing former White House chief of staff John Kelly as a board member.
Many teens at the Homestead facility are fleeing gang violence or poverty. Although many traveled to the U.S. without family, they have described in court documents the devastation of being taken from aunts, uncles or older siblings before ending up in custody of the Department of Health and Human Services. Last year, a now-defunct policy implemented by the Trump administration led to more than 2,700 children being separated from parents, causing mass outrage.
While Sanders and a number of other Democratic candidates tried to tour the center, none of the candidates have so far been allowed into the Homestead facility, which holds about 2,500 children.
Health and Human Services spokeswoman Evelyn Stauffer said in an email that members of Congress are welcome to tour the facility but that there’s a minimum two-week notice required, a policy she said had been in place since 2015.
Looking over the fence into the facility, 2020 candidate and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said “it looks like a prison.”
“No American would want this to happen to their kids,” he said. “Why is it being done in our name with our money?”
He added: “This is an American tragedy. It’s almost impossible to believe it’s happening in our time and in our name.”
Besides the Democratic candidates, protesters have had a regular presence outside the facility. Drenched in sweat from the intense heat, protesters on Wednesday shouted “Homes Instead!” A mother showed up with her three young children, two of whom sat in a stroller and held signs that read “Close the camps.”
Federal lawmakers and immigrant rights advocates have called for the detention center to be shut down, saying it is holding children for too long in “prison-like” conditions. A Clinton-era settlement generally bars the government from holding children longer than 20 days, but some children at Homestead said they had been there for months.
Caliburn said in a statement that it operates temporary shelters to protect “vulnerable, unaccompanied young people” and provide them with services including classes, recreation and medical care, “not private prisons or detention centers.”
“Those who suggest otherwise are intentionally creating a false and deceptive description to mislead the public and score political points,” the company said.
A motion filed last month in a federal court included dozens of testimonials from children who complain they cry because they miss their families and are allowed only limited phone calls. They are obligated to follow numerous strict rules, such as no touching or hugging friends, or risk prolonging their detention or facing deportation.
Fox News’ Heather Lacy and The Associated Press contributed to this report.