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Local Florida Officials Barred From Kids' Shelter


U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, with U.S. Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, right, speaks during a news conference in front of the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children, June 23, 2018, in Homestead, Fla. Nelson and four of the state's Democratic House members toured the detention center where about 100 immigrant children taken from their parents were being held.

Five members of Congress were allowed Saturday into a Homestead, Florida, facility housing immigrant children taken from their parents, but five state and local officials in the same group were refused entry.

The group included four U.S. representatives for Florida and Bill Nelson, one of Florida's two U.S. senators.

Speaking to reporters after the visit, Nelson said the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children, which holds nearly 1,200 children, was "nice," but he said they were not allowed to see the children or the person in charge of reuniting families. Most of the children are unaccompanied minors detained while crossing into the United States.

He told VOA's Spanish service that, of the 70 immigrant children separated from their families who are at the facility, "most of them have talked to their parents by phone."

"I asked what is being done to reunify them with the parents that they were taken away from, and they said they don't have any instructions on that," Nelson said.

The Department of Homeland Security issued a statement late Saturday saying that the agency and the Department of Health and Human Services have established a process "to ensure that family members know the location of their children and have regular communication after separation..."

The statement said the process is "well coordinated" and the U.S. government "knows the location of all children in its custody and is working to reunite them with their families."

Nelson, a Florida Democrat had been denied entry to the shelter earlier in the week, but Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio was allowed to visit on Friday although he was not allowed to meet the person in charge of reuniting families. The state and local officials turned away Saturday were told they needed to request a tour two weeks in advance.

The officials turned away from the shelter include state senators Annette Taddeo and Jose Javier Rodriguez, state representative Kionne McGhee, and Miami-Dade County Commissioners Barbara Jordan and Danielle Levine Cava.

Nelson, Rubio and their colleagues are among a number of government officials struggling to get answers from federal authorities and contractors about the children in the shelters who were separated from their families and re-classified as "unaccompanied minors."

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti speaks with a group of mayors from across the U.S. outside the children's tent encampment built to deal with the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" immigration policy in Tornillo, Texas, June 21, 2018.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti speaks with a group of mayors from across the U.S. outside the children's tent encampment built to deal with the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" immigration policy in Tornillo, Texas, June 21, 2018.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti held a news conference Friday revealing that there are about 100 immigrant children staying in the city on the United States' West Coast. He said he has been told the children are in group homes or staying with foster families, but he does not know where.

Garcetti said his staff has learned what it knows from activists and other groups that take in unaccompanied minors. He said most of the children are believed to be "among the very youngest" of those taken from their parents. He said he is worried that some may be too young to recognize their parents, complicating attempts to reunite families.

Kansas facility

In Topeka, Kansas, on Friday the state's Department for Children and Families toured a group home known as The Villages, which has contracted with the federal government to house 50 unaccompanied minors. The executive director of The Villages, Sylvia Crawford, confirmed to The Kansas City Star that some of the children have been separated from their parents and come from Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., holds a card written by a Chicago child at a news conference, June 22, 2018, in Chicago. This and other cards were later shown to children detained as a result of President Donald Trump's policy of separating families at the border.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., holds a card written by a Chicago child at a news conference, June 22, 2018, in Chicago. This and other cards were later shown to children detained as a result of President Donald Trump's policy of separating families at the border.

In Chicago, Congressman Dick Durbin told reporters that 66 children separated from their families are being housed in shelters across the city. He said one-third of the children are younger than 5. Two-thirds, or more than 40, are younger than 13.

Durbin said he has toured one of the nine shelters operated by the Heartland Alliance, an immigrant aid group. He said the children are receiving proper care, although he said the separation from their families is "inhumane" and "cruel."

Evelyn Diaz, president of Heartland Alliance, said her group has managed to locate about two-thirds of the children's families, but that can be difficult when the parents are in detention.

"It's like a scavenger hunt," she said.

FILE - Darwin Micheal Mejia, bottom center, and his mother, Beata Mariana de Jesus Mejia-Mejia, left, are escorted to a news conference following their reunion at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, June 22, 2018, in Linthicum, Md.
FILE - Darwin Micheal Mejia, bottom center, and his mother, Beata Mariana de Jesus Mejia-Mejia, left, are escorted to a news conference following their reunion at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, June 22, 2018, in Linthicum, Md.

Reunited

In one bit of good news, a migrant mother from Guatemala and her 7-year-old son were reunited early Friday after being separated a month ago at the U.S. border.

Beata Mariana de Jesus Mejia-Mejia and her son Darwin were rejoined at Baltimore-Washington International Airport in Maryland. They were reunited one day after the mother sued in federal court and the Justice Department agreed to release her son.

WATCH: Guatemalan Migrant Mother, Son Reunited

Guatemalan Migrant Mother, Son Reunited
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On Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump changed the family separation policy, telling federal agencies to not separate immigrant families after they illegally cross into the country from Mexico.

However, it is unclear when or how more than 2,300 children separated from their families since April will be restored to their families.

How officials will handle the immigrant legal cases also remains unclear. A VOA reporter at an immigration court hearing in Brownsville, Texas, Thursday morning said prosecutors dropped misdemeanor charges against 17 migrants. But the Department of Justice later insisted it is not dropping charges against detained immigrants.

DOJ lawyers Thursday asked a federal judge in California for an emergency ruling that would allow them to detain minors with their legal guardians until their immigration cases were adjudicated. Authorities now may hold families in immigration detention for only 20 days. On average, current cases are taking 721 days to resolve.

White House Bureau Chief Steve Herman, National Security Correspondent Jeff Seldin, Justice Department Correspondent Masood Farivar and Aline Barros contributed to this report.

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