Every month, thousands of migrant children turn up at the United States' southern border seeking asylum. Many are sent to emergency intake shelters, the largest of which is located in South Florida. Those shelters, which house children awaiting a decision on their asylum case, have come under fire after a report from the Department of Health and Human Services found that thousands of migrant children reported being sexually abused while held in the centers.
Rabbi Josh Whinston, from Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor, went to Florida this week to visit several of those detention centers.
Whinston, and other faith leaders, were invited to tour some of the facilities by the Office of Refugee Resttlement. That included a tour of Homestead, the largest and only for-profit intake shelter for migrant youth.
Whinston says while there, he was shown the center's classrooms, cafeteria, and dormitories. For 17-year-olds, the dormitory consisted of one large bunk room with 144 beds.
“The person in charge told us that the kids request it, that it feels like summer camp to them, and that it feels like a sleepover to them," Whinston said. "To me, it looked like a prison.”
Whinston was unable to talk with any of the children, but he says he paid close attention to their demeanors. Officials offered little information about the inner workings of the facility or its discplinary policies, he says.
“It isn’t so much the issues of what is seen that I was worried about, it’s what’s unseen that I’m worried about,” Whinston said.
There are alternatives to the emergency influx shelters for migrant youth awaiting a decision in an asylum case. Those include being placed with family members in the United States or being placed in either temporary or long-term foster care.
Bethany Christian Services of Grand Rapids runs a program that places unaccompanied minors coming into the country into foster care homes in the U.S. But during the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy, the agency also received hundreds of children, often very young, who had been separated from their parents or caretaker at the border.
Dona Abbott, Bethany's branch director of refugee services, says that the best place for a child to be is with their family. But for children and teens who come to the country without an adult, large-scale detention facilities like Homestead are not appropriate.
While they await a decision in their asylum case, Abbott says foster homes are a better place for traumatized youth, with "a family-like environment that can meet their unique and individual needs.”
Last month, Abbott testified before Congress about her concerns about these large-scale institutions. She told the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations that they are not appropriate settings for children of any age.
Abbott would like Congress to take action to protect vulnerable migrant youth. That includes placing trained social workers at the border to work with families, keeping more migrant families together, and finding alternatives to detention centers for both unaccompanied migrant youth and migrant families.
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Katie Raymond.