What a Tampa resident saw from outside Homestead detention camp for migrant children

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Human rights observers have reported on poor conditions at migrant detention camps near the border – some people are calling them concentration camps. Many young migrants are being detained in Homestead, Florida; WMNF asked a Tampa resident, Marina Welch with the new group Witness for Homestead, what she saw when she traveled there recently.

“I was there on Tuesday June 25th. I went because I was already in Fort Lauderdale for a political event and decided I’m this close. I want to go see the detention camp.”

SK: When you got there, what did you see?

“Well, I was given a tour of where people were allowed to be, where we were allowed to stand, where we are allowed to walk. And then I was shown to the ladders.”

“So, I got up on the ladder. They have these huge hearts that are on sticks that you can hold up. So, I was holding up a heart, and waving to the children.

“The children come out in single file in groups of about 15 or so with a guard in front and a guard in back and they’re marched from tent to tent to tent.

“They wave to us with their hands. They wave with their hats. They made heart shapes with their hands to let us know they saw the heart. It was just so heart-melting to have the children see that were there, and we care. And heartbreaking to see them marched around like prisoners.”

SK: How far away from you were the children and what kind of reaction would you say that they had?

“It’s several hundred yards, I’m sure. They were bodies, I could barely see their faces. So a lot of them were subdued and did not wave, and then about a third of them were so excited. I mean, literally jumping, waving their hats in the air, that they saw us.

“We were concerned that there’s been some talk that they were told not to wave to us, that they would be kept longer if they did. So we’re not sure if that’s why so many of them were not waving.”

SK: What about their physical condition? Could you tell whether they were properly clothed, or anything like that?

“Oh yeah, they seemed to all be dressed similarly. They had on t-shirt, long pants. The majority of them had a baseball cap — it was orange — to identify them. They seemed to be clothed appropriately. T-shirts they had on.

“Now the workers going into the camp were dressed for winter weather. So, I saw workers going in through the gates wearing wool scarves, down vests, gloves, and was told that it is so cold in those tents that they need those to stay warm.

“And I don’t know what accommodations are made for the children. I do know that the generators pumping the AC into those tents — and I’m sure it’s hard work to cool off a tent — but the generators are so loud that the boys are given an extra blanket to wrap around their head to keep down some of the noise.”

SK: The parts that you were shown, is that inside whatever fence there might have been, or outside?

“Well, it’s behind the government fence, the big green fence and yard. There is a dirt soccer place. A few boys got to play soccer for about 15 minutes, and then were herded back inside. So, it’s inside the government complex of what used to be Job Corps.”

Listen to this interview:

SK: You mentioned tents. Are there any permanent structures that the children were in?

“There are permanent structures there. I believe some children are housed in those structures. They’re left over from the Job Corps site that was there that was seriously damaged in Hurricane Andrew. So, it’s damp, moldy, floods. We don’t know. I only saw the children coming from the tents to tents.”

SK: So, you would assume that they are there full time in the tents, except for when they go outside to exercise.

“Yes. Some probably are in the permanent structures, but they aren’t a healthy environment.”

SK: How old are the kids you saw?

“I was told they’re between 13 and 16. Some looked awful small for 13. So, I think there were some who were younger. When they turn seventeen, they go to another facility across the street from that one. I did not get to see that. And then they age out at 18. They’re taken out in shackles, and moved to an adult detention camp.”

SK: You’re encouraging people to go there to be witness. How would someone go about doing that?

“You can go on the [Witness For Homestead] website and sign up for a tour or a visit. I just showed up. You can just show up. Just go. To witness means to see and tell the truth, and that’s what we’re asking people to do. Come back. Tell us what you saw. Get more people to go. The more that see and tell the truth, the sooner we can get this shut down.”