US immigration

‘They’re hiding something’: Cover-up claims after US lawmakers not allowed to see child immigrant centre in Florida

US officials are ‘obviously hiding something’, Senator Bill Nelson said after being turned away while trying to inspect conditions

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 June, 2018, 5:04am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 June, 2018, 3:28am

A US Senator has accused a facility created to house children separated from their parents of creating a cover-up after he and another lawmaker were denied access to it.

US Senator Bill Nelson and US Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz were told they could not enter the shelter in Homestead, Florida, where more than 1,000 migrant teenagers are being housed, after they said they wanted to tour the facility and inspect conditions.

After being blocked from entering the centre, Nelson accused the Trump administration of a “cover-up.” “This is a federally contracted facility,” he said. “This is in my state of Florida. We are being denied entry to see about the welfare of children as well as to see about children separated from parents.”

Nelson said that federal officials “are obviously hiding something,” and he was told at least two weeks’ notice must be given to tour the facility.

Wasserman Schultz called for the resignation of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who has defended the policy of separating children from their parents who try to illegally cross the southern border.

The agency that oversees the Homestead facility – the US Department of Health and Human Services – has also refused to explain to reporters the facility’s role in US President Donald Trump’s immigration crackdown. A request by the South Florida Sun Sentinel to tour the facility was denied.

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Ken Wolfe, a spokesman for the agency, wrote in an email that the shelter served as “a temporary unaccompanied alien children program facility” but offered few additional details.

The shelter was opened in 2016 amid an influx of unaccompanied children seeking to escape violence in Central America. The temporary shelter in a government building near the Homestead Air Reserve Base was closed in March 2017.

It reopened in February and is presently housing 1,192 teenagers, Wolfe wrote in an email. He did not elaborate on how the teenagers ended up in the facility. The new population did not receive media attention until Wasserman Schultz announced it at an event on Monday.

The federal government contracts with Cape Canaveral-based Comprehensive Health Services to run the Homestead shelter. Gail Hart, a company spokeswoman, declined to comment and referred questions to the Department of Health and Human Services.

The separations are the result of a “zero tolerance” policy implemented by the Trump administration. The policy has resulted in everyone who is apprehended entering the country illegally – including those seeking asylum – being charged criminally. That generally results in children being separated from their parents.

Nielsen defended the separations, saying her department is enforcing the laws on the books. She said that previous administrations had separated families at the border, although at lower rates, and that children in detention facilities were provided meals, education, medical care and television.

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But critics – including prominent Republicans – say the policy of splitting up families is inhumane.

The investigative news website ProPublica released a recording on Monday from a detention centre of children crying and calling for their mothers and fathers. A border agent is captured on the recording joking, “We have an orchestra here.”

Governor Rick Scott – a Republican who is running for the US Senate against Nelson – said on Monday that he did not favour separating families at the border, but he did not reference Trump by name in his statement or call for an immediate end to the practice.

Nelson has co-sponsored a bill that would prohibit the practice of separating children solely as a deterrence to prevent people from migrating to the United States.

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Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, wrote on Twitter that he favoured changing “the law to allow families to be held together at family facilities & shorten detention with expedited hearings”.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush – who faced Trump in the Republican primary in 2016 – called on Trump to “end this heartless policy”.