In this Feb. 19, 2019 file photo, children line up to enter a tent at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in Homestead, Fla. (Photo: AP)
The Trump administration announced Monday that it is shutting down one of the largest US facilities for child migrants, which had come under intense criticism because of its regimented conditions and the contractor’s ties to a freshly departed White House official.
The US Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement that it has reduced bed capacity from 1,200 to zero and the contract with Comprehensive Health Services Inc. is set to end on Nov. 30. About 2,000 workers will be let go in the coming days.
The Homestead, Florida, facility emptied out in August but had remained operational in case there was no room at shelters for teen migrants who cross the US-Mexico border and end up in government custody.
Health and Human Services said the decision to eliminate beds was to “ensure fiscal prudence.” Last month, Jonathan Hayes, director of the department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, said the facility was costing $720,000 a day to run even when no children were left there.
In a letter to Congress, the administration informed lawmakers that the facility was transitioning to “warm status” with no beds but would retain access to the site in case the number of child migrants rises.
A court filing earlier this year alleged the government was holding migrant children in “prison-like conditions” for months, allowing limited phone calls and ordering them to follow strict rules or face prolonged detention.
Democratic presidential hopefuls turned the Miami-area facility into a campaign stop this summer, when about 2,500 teens were held there. They attacked the administration for holding children in a cramped detention center run by a private company tied to former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly.
The Homestead facility, a former Labor Department Job Corps site, also was used during the Obama administration to hold up to 800 migrants from June 2016 to April 2017.
It reopened in March 2018, but the contractor was then backed by a private equity company Kelly had advised as a board member in the months before joining the Trump administration. The facility held as many as 140 children who were separated from their parents last year as part of a “zero-tolerance” policy that separated thousands of families at the US-Mexico border.
As Homeland Security secretary, Kelly first revealed the US government was considering separating families who were migrating to deter others considering traveling north.
This year, the facility underwent a massive expansion from 1,350 to 2,350 beds. In April, federal officials announced the capacity was growing to hold 3,200 children because of a surge of migrants crossing the US-Mexico border.
Three months after leaving the Trump administration in January, Kelly was spotted by protesters touring the facility east of the Everglades in a golf cart. Authorities confirmed he had visited the site on April 4, on behalf of Caliburn International Corp., which owns the contractor Comprehensive Health Services. Five days later, that company was awarded a no-bid contract for $341 million citing an immediate need to increase bed capacity.
The company later publicly announced Kelly had joined the board.
Caliburn has in its executive suite a high-ranking military officer who advised President Donald Trump in his first months in office and a former Department of Defense principal deputy inspector general.
The company did not respond to a request for comment Monday and referred questions to Health and Human Services officials.
US Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, the Democratic lawmaker who represents the district encompassing the site, invited the field of 2020 Democratic candidates to visit the facility. Along with other lawmakers, Mucarsel-Powell has pressed a government watchdog agency to investigate Kelly’s role in the contracting negotiations.
“Caliburn will no longer receive millions of dollars to operate an empty facility,” Mucarsel-Powell said. “Given Caliburn’s poor record of child abuse and neglect, as well as the sheer number of former administration officials now serving on Caliburn’s board, this is a good first step towards ending one of many corrupt practices this Administration has executed.”