Politics

Billboards demand US government stop detaining migrant children

Signs paid for by Amnesty International

ORLANDO - About 10 miles away from Disney World in Orlando, visitors making their way to the theme park can see a billboard containing a jarring message: "We don't believe in locking up children. Do you?"

On the drive north to Miami from the city of Homestead, passersby will find a similar one: "You are now 7 miles away from where kids are locked up."

The billboards, installed by Amnesty International USA, are a reference to a detention facility in Homestead that previously housed thousands of unaccompanied migrant children.

The organization launched the campaign to call on the US government to stop detaining children in facilities such as the one in Homestead, timed to coincide with UNICEF's World Children's Day on Wednesday.

"World Children's Day is a day for children, yet children in this very country are denied their freedom," Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said in a statement. "The Trump administration has detained children for the act of seeking safety."

The billboards direct people to the website TruthAboutHomestead.org, where visitors can sign a petition demanding the government shut down the Homestead detention center and stop using similar facilities.

Amnesty International USA's campaign comes after the organization stated in a July report that children at the Homestead facility were detained for an indefinite and prolonged period of time, in violation of international and federal laws.

An October report from the organization accused a US government contractor, Comprehensive Health Services, of enabling the detention of migrant children.

The Department of Health and Human Services didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on the billboards. Officials have repeatedly pushed back against advocates' criticisms of the care immigrant children receive while in US custody, arguing that protecting child welfare is a top priority.

 

The Homestead facility

 

The Homestead facility was first used under the Obama administration to house unaccompanied children during an uptick in migration at the southern border starting in June 2016, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

In February 2018, it was officially designated as a temporary influx shelter for children crossing the border without their parents, and from March 2018 until August 2019, the Homestead center has housed about 14,300 children between ages 13 and 17.

Children stayed there for an average of 44 days before they were released to suitable sponsors, the department said, though critics said some of the minors stayed for months. The Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division within HHS, is responsible for finding a sponsor for the child, which may result in prolonged detention.

In a "myth vs fact" document on its website, HHS says it's a myth to call the facility a "detention center." Rather, it says, "Homestead is an emergency influx shelter that is set up to provide housing and services to unaccompanied alien children until they can legally and safely be released to a parent, relative, or other sponsor, which is done as quickly as possible."

The facility had become a stop for Democratic presidential hopefuls. Immigration advocates criticized the conditions at the Homestead facility, noting that minors there were not allowed to hug and had limited access to speak to their parents, and that conditions were overall not favorable to children. Two members of Congress who visited the facility in July wrote a letter to the Department of Homeland Security and HHS expressing concerns about contagious diseases there.

In late October, HHS announced it was shutting the center, although it would retain access to the facility in case it needed to house migrant children referred to its care in the future. No children were being housed there as of August 3, according to a news release.

Amnesty International USA acknowledged that no children were currently being detained at the Homestead facility, but pointed out that the government could still decide to detain children there again at a later date.

"Homestead is an egregious example of the problem of detention across the system but we don't want temporary care influx facilities like Homestead to exist at all," Denise Bell, a researcher for refugee and migrant rights at Amnesty International USA, told CNN. "That money should be used in the release process when children are released faster to appropriate sponsors. The government is not a parent. Children have parents waiting for them."


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