HOMESTEAD (CBSMiami/AP) — South Florida houses the largest child detention center in the United States for unaccompanied minors.
As calls for action on the border crisis grow louder, the facility in Homestead has become a major stop for Democratic presidential candidates.
Inside the compound, under the watchful eye of workers in blue shirts, children walk around in orange caps to shield them from the glaring summer heat.
Posted on the fence is a stern warning: “U.S. Govt. Property NO Trespassing.”
Across the street, protesters carrying signs that read “Free the Children” and “Shut it down” use step ladders to peek over the fence.
Katie Berendsohn, one of the activists gathered outside the facility, said they noticed the orange caps worn by the children.
“They chose prison orange, which if you’re trying to say that this is not a child’s prison was really a rather foolish thing,” Berendsohn said. “It really still is a prison for children.”
Presidential Candidates Take Notice
Immigration advocates have pushed for the closure of the Homestead facility for months, decrying what they describe as unfavorable conditions for children.
Several Democratic presidential candidates have taken notice and made plans to visit the Homestead Migrant Children Detention Facility — one of 168 operated in 23 states by the US Department of Health and Human Services.
Hours before 10 candidates took the stage for the party’s first debate in Miami on Wednesday, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren rushed to the detention center accompanied by a few dozen supporters bussed by her campaign after the senator publicly invited people to join her.
Warren said she was not allowed to enter the facility about 40 miles from Miami, and stood atop a ladder with a hat and sunglasses in the 90-degree heat to wave to children behind the fence. She said some looked down and a few waved back.
“There weren’t children playing. There weren’t children laughing the way children usually do when they’re moving from one place to another,” she told reporters after the visit. “These were children who were being marched like little soldiers, like little prisoners, from one place to another. This is not what we should be doing as a country.”
More Candidates Are Coming
While some candidates had long planned to visit the detention facility during their trip to Miami for the debate, Warren’s announcement seemingly set off a wave of announced visits.
Jane Sanders, wife of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, stopped by the facility Wednesday, telling reporters one of her husband’s first executive actions as president would be to shut down facilities like the one in Homestead.
On Thursday it was Sen. Sanders turn to visit, and he stopped to briefly speak to the media.
Sanders’ comments to members of the media were brief. He was the only candidate to visit the facility on Thursday who will participate in the debate later in the evening.
He was asked about whether these detention centers were essentially concentration camps.
“You do not lock up children, including kids who are 8, 9 or 10 years of age, especially when these kids, in most cases as I understand, have relatives in the US. Simple truth,” said Sanders. “I have constituents who still have the numbers on their arms from Auschwitz. No, this not that, those were death camps. This is a prison camp.”
The Homestead center is the only detention center for children in the country that is run by a private, for profit corporation.
“I think it’s bad idea, something I’ll end as President, to have private corporations running jails or detention centers in this country, corporations should not be making money out of imprisoning people,” said Sanders.
WATCH: Senator Bernie Sanders speaks from outside the facility on Thursday
“It’s unacceptable that we have these unaccompanied children who are here waiting for their cases and they have people welcoming them into their homes but they are not being allowed to leave,” said Representative Tulsi Gabbard.
Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke was the first candidate to announce he planned to visit the Homestead detention facility. He was also there Thursday on following his participation in the debate the night prior.
“Our policy, one that follows legislation that I cosponsored in Congress, says that no family, no child, no woman, no man who is seeking asylum or refuge in this country will be criminally prosecuted. It’s not a criminal offense,” said O’Rourke. “But I also wanted to call our attention to the larger opportunity, which is to completely rewrite our immigration laws.”
Caliburn International, the company who owns the for-profit detention center responded to O’Rourke’s claims in a statement saying, “Unfortunately, Congressman O’Rourke came to the Homestead temporary emergency, not to find out more about the shelter, but to use it as a political, campaign stop. As such, his information is inaccurate and his allegations about the shelter misleading and erroneous. Unfortunately, if he had sought a visit through the required process, he could have seen the shelter firsthand, or even if he had asked to meet with staff during his quick drop by, he could have received more precise information. So when he suggests children are punished for touching, that educational needs are not being met, or that children are being withheld from family members, he’s got it wrong. The Homestead temporary emergency shelter has over 4000 dedicated employees who strive to provide the best possible care for each and every child and to assist in their safe placement with properly vetted sponsors. Reunifications are done as quickly and as safely possible, most in a month. No child is kept longer than required for a safe placement. We all want the same thing and share a common goal; that is, caring for these children and finding them a safe home–and that is exactly what we are doing at the Homestead temporary emergency shelter.”
WATCH: Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke speaks from outside the facility on Thursday
“It does not look like a place where teenagers are supposed to be,” said Bill de Blasio, who also visited Thursday.
“We have to be very careful. I represent a lot of Holocaust survivors. I have constituents who still have the numbers on their arms from Auschwitz, no this is not that. Those were death camps, those were places unprecedented in history. This is a prison camp, this is wrong. It has to be ended,” he added.
WATCH: Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks from outside the facility on Thursday
Advocate: Children Are Not Allowed To Hug
Immigration advocate Melissa Taveras has pushed for the closure of the Homestead facility, arguing that the detention of children should not be normalized.
Conditions in Homestead are not favorable for children, she said. The immigrant minors held there are not allowed to hug and have limited access to a phone to call their parents, Taveras said.
“They are told that if they misbehave or not do what they are told, they are going to be moved to a place which is worse and they are going to be separated from their parents permanently,” she said. “They are limited to about two calls per week, with very limited time on the phone.” CNN has reached out to the Health and Human Services.
Taveras urged politicians to come up with a solution to the immigration crisis. “Children do not belong in detention centers. And we require comprehensive immigration reform at the national level,” she said.
Outside the facility, the cars parked there tell their own stories.
“Beto For America,” one bumper sticker says. “Anyone but Trump 2020,” reads another on the same Nissan Altima.
Health and Human Services activated the center last year. Since opening in March 2018, more than 13,300 minors have been placed at the site and 10,800 of them discharged to a suitable sponsor, according to the HHS.
The thousands of children housed there are between ages 13-17 and stay for an average 44 days before they’re released to suitable sponsors, it says. But critics have said some of the minors have stayed there for months.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell from Florida’s 26th district will be at the facility on Friday, and she has a distinguished guest list of presidential hopefuls coming with her.
Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, California Sen. Kamala Harris, former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper and Marianne Williamson are all scheduled to join Mucarsel-Powell in Homestead.
ABOUT THE FACILITY
The Homestead shelter, which is the only for-profit child detention center in the country, houses approximately 3,000 children, all ages 13 to 17 years old.
It is the largest child detention center in the United States for unaccompanied minors.
The facility is run by Caliburn International, a Virginia based company awarded a government contract to manage the center.
President Donald Trump’s former Chief of Staff, General John Kelly, is on the company’s board.
Caliburn International operates the facility under a no-bid contract that is worth more than $350 million.
They are waiting to be reunited with their families or paired with sponsors once they are screened by the U.S. government.
Many of the children are fleeing gang and domestic violence and will end up seeking asylum.
Children sleep up to 12 per room in steel-framed bunk beds, and warehouse-sized, air-conditioned white tents where minors attend classes and watch movies.
The facility has a command center. Inside are cameras, computers, and staff members who watch over the kids. They keep track of how many kids are in the shelter and how many are moved.
While numbers vary, officials say most are reunited with family members. Those who are not can be at the shelter for as long as 57 days. On average, a child’s stay there is about 25 days.
The children have school six hours a day and there are recreational activities.
At night, lights go out in the rooms at 10 p.m. but are left on in the hallways. The children are awakened each day at 6:30 a.m. for a full day’s program of activities and classes.
During the day, the kids are provided breakfast, lunch, dinner, and three snacks.
The children meet with their attorneys once a week. They also have access to clinicians and social workers.
On their arrival, they are given a five day supply of clothes, laundry is done every other day.
The facility, contracted by the Department of Health and Human Services, is surrounded by chain-link fence, but there is no barbed wire. There are guards, but they are not armed. Doors have been removed from the dormitory bedrooms.
(© Copyright 2019 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)