AOC Sounded Off About the Newly Reopened Private Detention Centers for Children
Earlier this week, a viral meme of Vice President Kamala Harris resurfaced with new life: The video of Harris was taken at the Homestead Child Detention Center in 2019, where the then-presidential candidate said, "I will tell you, when I am elected, one of the first things I am going to do is shut down these private detention facilities, just shut 'em down."
This week, news broke that the Biden administration is reportedly planning to reopen the Homestead detention center, which closed in 2019 following reports of sexual abuse and negligence. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was among those who spoke out against the decision, tweeting that the United States' immigration system is built on a "carceral framework," and stating, "This is not okay, never has been okay — no matter the administration or party."
She also spotlighted the Roadmap to Freedom resolution, led by Representative Pramila Jayapal, that focuses on urgent changes to U.S. immigration policy. AOC's comments were retweeted 40,000 times.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki stated that the expansion of the additional facilities was necessary to adhere to Covid-19 protocols (the alleged idea being that having increased spaces and facilities promotes social distancing) due to an influx of unaccompanied minors arriving at the border. However some detractors, like Leecia Welch, senior director of child welfare at the nonprofit National Center for Youth Law, told the AP that the government should have made changes to the procedures months ago, arguing that the current situation is a "government-created crisis."
"I think that one of the things that really bothered me about [Psaki's] description is how the Biden administration and law makers are out of touch and out of the reality from the lived experiences of our people and folks who ended up in those facilities," Cynthia Garcia, United We Dream's National Campaign Manager for Community Protection, tells InStyle. Garcia is an undocumented queer person who arrived to the United States in 2003 with a parent and a sibling. The Customs and Border Protections (CBP) agents spent time intimidating them and attempting to prove that Garcia's mother was not, in fact, her mother, rather than facilitating access to resources, including housing and language assistance. Garcia's mother and sister were sent to one facility; Garcia was sent to another, which looked "exactly like a prison." That was 18 years ago, Garcia says, and "these facilities have not changed."
Research shows that holding children and youth in congregate settings causes immediate and long-term harm to mental, emotional, and physical health, Wendy Cervantes, director of immigration and immigrant families at the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) tells InStyle. "The danger is even greater in larger facilities like those being reopened by the Biden Administration to temporarily house migrant children," Cervantes adds. "It may take time for our country to implement a new system that truly upholds the safety, health, and well-being of children and youth who migrate here alone — one that treats them with the dignity and compassion they deserve from the moment they arrive, and throughout the long process of navigating our complicated immigration laws and adapting to their new home."
While children are no longer held in literal cages and separated from their parents, as they were during the Trump administration, Garcia says that places like Homestead have well-documented histories of violence and sexual abuse. And the motives of private companies who operate these centers isn't children's well-being — it's profit.
Guadalupe de la Cruz, program director of American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in Florida, tells InStyle that Homestead was the largest for-profit children's detention center in the U.S., and money was paid per child housed in the center under the private contract. It is unclear if Homestead will operate similarly after the reopening.
These for-profit facilities are yet another example of where money is spent and how, especially when it comes to immigration policy, and a clear illustration that this abuse wasn't particularly unique to the Trump era. "I frankly think that's also one of the reasons why there is so much political tension here: immigrant communities knew that Trump was definitely a symptom of the white supremacy that impacts our people," Garcia tells InStyle. But it wasn't just Trumpism at fault. The Obama-Biden administration, Garcia notes, deported millions of people. "So many allies and even the [Obama] administration say, 'we need time, we need time,'" Garcia says of promises made to reform immigration policy. " Well, we gave you eight years."
Homestead detainees, specifically, also face environmental racism, explains de la Cruz, who led a report published in 2019 on the environmental risks of Homestead. Conditions posed serious health and safety risks for children housed there, including possible exposure to toxic chemicals from a neighboring Superfund site and to excessive noise from planes taking off and landing at the nearby Homestead Air Reserve Base runway, according to the report. Widespread contamination surrounding the facility also raised concerns that children were exposed to unsafe levels of hazardous chemicals. There's also no concrete plan for evacuation in the event of a hurricane.
And it's not as though the administration is without alternatives. With the appointment of Joe Biden's new DHS director, where ICE's leadership falls under, "they have the power to stop detaining and deporting our people and they are choosing not to," Garcia says. "The Biden administration should be taking the lead of community efforts that would help and facilitate best practices for children to be reunited with sponsors and guardians," says de la Cruz.
Oliver Torres, a senior outreach paralegal for the Southern Poverty Law Center's Immigrant Justice Project, also suggested "community-based, humane alternatives to detention such as NGOs, nonprofits and community sponsors that are ready to safely care for migrant children from the safety of homes. These options are safer and less traumatizing and will end our reliance on profit-driven private detention corporations."
Over the last 17 years, the U.S. has spent $330 billion on immigration enforcement. "For a country that cannot send its people $600, $1200, $2,000 [in Covid-related stimulus checks], we have been able to spend quite a bit of money to cage people, to put them in conditions that will further criminalize them, take away their humanity, and expose them to Covid," Garcia points out. The abolition of ICE would free up money for community-centered support. "We don't need a punishment based entity," Garcia adds.
As it stands, the Biden administration should make it a priority to place children with their families as quickly as possible to avoid repeating mistakes that cause serious consequences for kids, Cervantes says. Supporting organizers doing on-the-ground work, and prioritizing the humanity of individuals in these facilities, should be top of mind — not debating whether a "different" kind of detention facility is somehow OK.