Democratic U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan walked away from a tour of a migrant detention facility in southern Florida Monday with more questions than answers.
Pocan, of Black Earth, visited Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children, about 30 miles south of Miami. The shelter is one of more than 100 across the U.S. grappling with a surge of arrivals from the southern border.
The facility’s “influx” shelter status suggests unaccompanied minors will be kept there only briefly until they can be reunited with a family member or friend pending immigration court proceedings. Pocan said the goal is no more than 20 days.
But he said he spoke to four girls at the facility who told him their stay at Homestead has dragged on for as many as 75 days.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services did not immediately respond to questions, but an agency statement last month said the average stay is 25 days.
Homestead’s temporary status also means it isn’t subject to Florida regulations and inspections intended to guarantee child welfare, but is held to a looser set of federal guidelines.
Homestead’s population dropped by about 1,000 children over the last several weeks to roughly 1,300, in part, to meet a smaller population target for hurricane evacuation purposes, Pocan said.
“Does that mean they were placed in a home or does that mean they were just transferred to other facilities because this is one of the places that is getting a lot of attention?” he asked. “We didn’t get a clear answer on that.”
Pocan acknowledged Homestead’s physical conditions were not as severe as what has been reported at some facilities in Texas, but noted that Homestead had about a week’s notice in advance of the oversight tour. News reports from Texas have described children being held in overcrowded facilities for weeks with insufficient food and no toothbrushes.
The privately run Florida facility receives $750 per child each day, Pocan said, which discourages staff from moving children out as quickly as possible.
“I think you could stay at the Trump hotel or Four Seasons for less than that,” he said in a press call with reporters Tuesday, saying the payment to a contractor was a poor use of taxpayer dollars.
Pocan pressed a division head about the $750 per-child cost and said he was told the startup cost of running such a facility is high. Explaining that there should no longer be initial costs, Pocan said staff told him they would get back to him.
Pocan described the facility’s educational environment — where the teachers are unlicensed, create their own curriculum and instruct students from a microphone in a room with constant, loud background noise — as inadequate.
Staff were unable to tell him how many mental health professionals work at Homestead, he said. Some assessments are conducted via videoconference with workers in Texas.
Mental health staff are needed, he said, to help the children, many of whom left violent countries in Central America, made a treacherous journey spanning thousands of miles and separated from their families.
Monday’s visit wasn’t Pocan’s first to a migrant shelter. He toured several in Texas last summer, which led him to introduce legislation that would abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Responding to President Donald Trump’s tweets over the weekend suggesting four Democratic congresswomen of color “go back” to the countries they came from, Pocan said the president’s social media habits are just the start of his message.
“His entire policy at the border is a racist policy,” Pocan said. “It is based on stopping people with brown and black skin from coming into the United States. Until we can change all of that, we, unfortunately, have what appears to be a person who is a racist who is the president of the United States.”