September 13, 2019

Senators Warren and Merkley Letter to HHS Raises Concerns about Reopening Migrant Child Detention Center and Conditions for Children

Senators argue that the privately-run facility has a history of poor conditions and over-crowding and should not be reopened

Washington, DC - United States Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) sent a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar amid reports that while the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children (Homestead) is no longer being used to detain migrant children, it may be used for that purpose again, despite its history of overcrowding and poor conditions. Homestead is the nation’s largest detention center for migrant children. The senators also seek information about where children previously detained at Homestead were relocated and all potential future uses of the facility.
In March 2018, HHS reopened Homestead “without public notice” to house child migrants, ages 13–17, who were unaccompanied by, or separated from, their parents. Homestead, the only for-profit facility for migrant children, is operated by Comprehensive Health Services, Inc. (CHSi), a subsidiary of Caliburn International, a private security consulting firm that operates private prisons. Although federal law requires unaccompanied children to be “promptly placed in the least restrictive setting that is in the best interest of the child,” a population census from June 2019 showed that Homestead had kept more than 800 children longer than 30 days, including several who had been there for nearly four months.
Numerous reports also emerged of the despicable conditions that thousands of children were forced to endure at Homestead. Amnesty International issued a report based on two visits to the facility, one in April 2019 and one in July 2019, recounting conditions that “fail[ed] to meet international obligations and the standards set out in US law.” According to the report, children were held in a “highly restrictive setting”; required to “wear bar codes”; were housed in rooms with 12 beds but only one toilet and shower and no door for privacy; and were subject to “insufficient language services, inappropriate remote case-management services, potentially inadequate educational services, and an inadequate system to report allegations of sexual abuse.”
After nearly a year and a half of subjecting children to poor conditions, HHS announced on August 3, 2019 that all minors had been moved from the Homestead facility. HHS did not provide information about the specific facilities or other locations to which these children have been sent. In addition, despite initial reports that Homestead would be shut down, it also appears that HHS may be gearing up to detain migrants at the facility again. The potential reopening of Homestead is particularly concerning given the Trump Administration’s recently unveiled regulation that would replace the Flores Settlement Agreement, which has governed the detention of unaccompanied migrant children since 1997, and allow for the indefinite detention of migrant families.
“It would be wrong to re-open a privately run facility with a history of poor conditions and over-crowding, and we urge you not to do so,” urged and concluded the senators. The senators have requested responses to questions laid out in their letter no later than September 26, 2019.
Senator Warren has taken a number of recent actions to hold immigration authorities accountable:
  • She led colleagues in sending a letter to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and HHS regarding the decision not to vaccinate families in U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) detention ahead of flu season and argued that the decision threatens the health of detainees, CBP personnel, and others;
  • Along with Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Representatives Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Judy Chu (D-Calif.), Lou Correa (D-Calif.), and Mark DeSaulnier (D-Calif.), Senator Warren led a letter to Acting DHS Secretary McAleenan and Acting U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director Matthew T. Albence demanding answers on ICE’s decision to end consideration of non-military deferred action requests, including medical deferred action. More than 100 colleagues joined this letter;
  • She and Senator Markey, together with Representative Pressley, sent a letter to Ken Cuccinelli, Acting Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), expressing their strong opposition to the agency's decision to indefinitely suspend new asylum interviews in the Boston Asylum Sub-Office and re-assign staff to the southern border. She also condemned the decision in a statement;
  • She wrote to the DHS Inspector General (IG) requesting an investigation into the unwarranted detention of American citizens by immigration authorities, and into the policies and procedures in place at ICE and CBP to prevent such detentions;
  • She sent a letter to the DHS IG requesting an investigation into the use of solitary confinement to force participation in "voluntary" work programs, and another letter to the Securities and Exchange Commission requesting an investigation of whether a private prison contractor violated securities laws in their statements about lawsuits regarding these programs;
  • She sent a letter to ICE expressing concern and requesting information regarding the agency’s reported misuse of solitary confinement at detention facilities;
  • She sent an oversight letter to ICE regarding reports that ICE has secretly transferred migrants to three new for-profit detention facilities;
  • She joined Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawai'i) in calling for the federal government to investigate federal contractors in charge of migrant children detained after crossing the U.S. southern border;
  • She and Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) investigated former White House Chief of Staff General John Kelly's “cynical” and “unethical” decision to join the board of directors of the federal contractor Caliburn International, which runs the nation's largest detention center for migrant children;
  • She sent letters to private prison operators, DHS, the Bureau of Prisons, and the American Correctional Association regarding the accreditation of private prison and immigration detention facilities;
  • Following reports that two additional children had died in the custody of CBP, Senator Warren sent a letter demanding answers about conditions that lead to the deaths of five children in the span of six months;
  • She called for an IG investigation into reports DHS used an intelligence firm's surveillance of Trump Administration family separation policy protests;
  • She questioned GEO Group and CoreCivic about their compliance with federal immigration detention standards following a DHS IG report about unsafe conditions and mistreatment of immigrants at a number of privately-run immigration detention centers;
  • She sent a letter to Nakamoto Group asking them a series of questions about the thoroughness of their inspections of immigration detention facilities following a DHS IG report about their inadequacy;
  • In April of this year, she released the prison companies’ responses, which revealed that neither the companies nor their private auditor have taken responsibility for egregious failures identified by the DHS IG, and also revealed an ongoing dispute between the Nakamoto Group, the contractor responsible for auditing detention facilities, and the IG about the quality of Nakamoto’s inspections; and
  • She led a letter to DHS regarding reports that ICE was coordinating with USCIS to arrest, detain, and deport individuals seeking to obtain legal immigration status.