We Must Not Detain Children in Toxic Cages, Regardless of the Administration in Charge
(Earth Justice) Today, Earthjustice and American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) are renewing their calls to permanently close the Homestead Detention facility in Miami-Dade county. Last week, the Miami Herald reported that the Biden administration was planning to reopen the for-profit Homestead Detention Center (Homestead), now known as the Biscayne Influx Care Facility, preparing to house children between the ages of 13 to 17. The Biden administration responded to concerns about reopening detention centers by saying instead it was a “shelter.” These semantic justifications do nothing to address the fact that this site is toxic and unsafe for children.
When last operational, it was the largest juvenile detention center in the United States and housed 1,200 minors, some of whom had been separated from their parents. Multiple minors reported sexual abuse at the hands of Homestead employees, which led to the firing and resignation of several employees. The news of this reopening comes just after the administration opened a juvenile detention facility with 700 beds in Carrizo Springs, TX.
Multiple dangerous conditions leave those being detained in Homestead particularly vulnerable to negative impacts on their health and well-being, some of which could persist throughout their lives. The portion of land where the Homestead detention center sits was previously part of the Homestead Air Force Base, before the base was re-designated as the Homestead Air Reserve Base and the portion of land was transferred to the Department of Labor (DOL) in 1996. DOL ran a Job Corps site before agreeing to allow the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to run a temporary influx shelter for unaccompanied minors in 2016 on their land.
Homestead, which is operated by for-profit private contractors, is within ⅔ of a mile of the Homestead Air Force Base Superfund site, which contains eight hotspots polluted by 16 different contaminants. The contaminants found in the soil and groundwater at these sources include metals, pesticides, semi-volatile and volatile organic compounds, and chlorinated volatile compounds resulting from leaks, spills, waste handling of hazardous materials, and other industrial and military processes. Many of these contaminants are human carcinogens and cause a variety of other serious chronic health problems including kidney failure, hemolytic anemia, and developmental damage. These conditions pose serious health risks for the children and raise serious concerns of involuntary exposure to unsafe levels of hazardous chemicals.
In 2019, these safety concerns led Earthjustice, initially on behalf WeCount!, and later substituting American Friends Service Committee as their client, to submit Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the Air Force, Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Department of Labor, Department of Health and Human Services, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) seeking documents about potential contamination and other safety risks. Information received from DOL revealed the presence of asbestos, lead-based paint, mold, and Polychlorinated Biphenyl at the detention center site. Some, but not all, have been remediated according to a 2018 environmental assessment.
The EPA advised that any records of environmental testing at the detention center site would be in the possession of the Air Force, since the detention center is adjacent to the Homestead Air Reserve Base. After 19 months of unresponsiveness and delay — well over the 20 business days required by law for a federal agency to respond to a FOIA request — Earthjustice is still waiting for a response to its records request to the Air Force. The request, for which Earthjustice narrowed the scope at the Air Force’s request in January 2021, seeks records of any environmental testing results, such as soil, groundwater, and air, information on past activities on the site, any clean up and remediation records of that site and surrounding Superfund sites; records of claims related to chemical or contaminant exposure made by service members and their families after being stationed there, records of harmful chemical exposure at the site, and records of weapons testing and pesticide application that could have impacts to environmental media.
DHS transferred Earthjustice’s FOIA request to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). To date, after numerous follow up attempts, ICE has yet to respond to Earthjustice’s records request.
The conditions at the Homestead facility are not unique. The United States government has continued to show flagrant disregard for the health of those in custody, including forced sterilization, the use of industrial chemical disinfectants at other migrant detention facilities, uncontrolled outbreaks of COVID-19, and attempting to build other facilities on highly toxic Superfund sites. These ongoing failures have created conditions that make it impossible to keep those in custody safe and therefore we are calling for the immediate release of everyone being held in migrant detention facilities.
“There is no guarantee or indication that this facility is safe for the children detained there. We know that the surrounding area is plagued with pervasive environmental pollutants, and the ongoing lack of transparency and unresponsive to our FOIA requests for more information is incredibly concerning,” said Dominique Burkhardt, an attorney for Earthjustice.
“The Biden administration should be focusing on reuniting children with their families, rather than expanding our ability to detain children,” said Guadalupe de la Cruz, Youth and Farmworker Program Director at AFSC. “The community fought so hard to close this facility, to protect children from all of its hazards, and it’s unconscionable that it could be reopening. It’s disappointing to have to have this same fight all over again, but we’ll do everything in our power to block the detention center from reopening. The administration’s rhetoric may not be anti-immigrant, but their actions are. This is shameful, disgusting, and indefensible.”
“I condemn the actions of the Biden administration for being hypocritical and calling for family reunification while at the same time opening these influx centers,” said Lis-Marie Alvarado, program director of AFSC. “Detention centers are not a place for children. It is going to be impossible to maintain COVID safety regulations. We have no idea about whether or not it is even safe to house anyone there, let alone vulnerable children. These children, who have already experienced significant trauma, are being subjected to so many unnecessary risks, from hurricanes to sexual assault in a facility being run for profit and by people with no experience or investment in their well-being.”