Journalists tour centre for migrant children in Florida

HOMESTEAD, Fla. — U.S. officials provided a glimpse Friday into a South Florida facility housing more than 1,000 teen-age migrants, seeking to dispel any suggestions that children are being mistreated.

Private contractors who run the centre for unaccompanied minors in Homestead, Fla., showed journalists around the campus like-complex for about an hour.

Journalists were not permitted to interview the children, and no cameras or recorders of any kind were allowed inside.

The tour included dorm-style buildings where 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.

Boys and girls, mostly kept separate, could be seen walking in line to the dining hall and classes, wearing government-issued cotton T-shirts and gym shorts. One group played basketball in the hot sun on a concrete court. Another group played soccer, shouting and laughing in a grass courtyard between dormitories. Others watched cartoons in the waiting area of a medical clinic. Girls walking in a line to class in pink T-shirts smiled shyly at a journalist, and said “buenos dias.”

Program director Leslie Wood said 792 males and 387 females aged 13 to 17 were being held there, with more were expected in coming days. They are all classified as unaccompanied minors, including fewer than 70 who were separated from adult relatives at the border; the vast majority are from Central America and arrived in the U.S. without relatives, she said.

“We provide all of them with the services that are required and we treat them with care,” she said.

Democratic lawmakers were refused entry on Tuesday. Protesters have gathered outside, accusing the Trump administration of trying to cover up mistreatment amid an outcry over images recorded elsewhere of crying children and minors locked up in what appear to be cage-like cells.

Wood bristled at the suggestion that she runs a detention facility. She said there are no cages or cell-like enclosures anywhere on the grounds, and said the facility focuses on assimilation into American society and reunifying children with relatives.

“It’s not a detention facility. I see it as a shelter,” Wood said. “A detention facility is a much more restrictive setting.”

The average stay of the children is 25 days, and most of them — about 85 per cent — end up being placed with relatives elsewhere in the United States.

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.

Wood said one child tried to escape, but staff surrounded him before he could leave. She declined to provide additional details. “He was just anxious; it wasn’t anything,” she said.

Wood said that overall, the children have not been problematic. Some females who arrived pregnant or injured have been moved to other facilities. There have been no suicide attempts, she said.

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.

“These children are really very good children,” Wood said. “They are just fleeing violence and hardship in their countries.”

Ben Fox, The Associated Press

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