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LibreOrganize 0.6.0 - Documentation

Youth Fight to Close Youth Detention Center

from the Sept. 8, 2021 Bulletin

immigration and border issues youth and students

Guadalupe de la Cruz serves as the program director for the American Friends Service Committee in Florida. In 2019, she played a key role in building the youth-led movement that shut down the notorious Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Migrant Children. Her fight won’t stop, de la Cruz vows, until all such detention centers shut down.


Your own family, in microcosm, tells the story of so many Mexican agricultural workers. How has US immigration policy affected your family?


My father came first to Homestead Florida, more than 40 years ago. My mother and three of my siblings came later, all undocumented. My parents then had three more children, including me, so we three are citizens. After the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act’s passage, my parents applied — and were approved for permanent residency. But they never did apply for citizenship.


My older brothers did have residency and work permits, but they fell out of status, with two now in the process of obtaining legal status and one deported. He tried to rejoin our family, but was stopped at the border, held in a detention center for a year, and then deported again. Hes still in México and barred from re-entry. So our family includes every category: citizens, permanent residents, undocumented, and deported.


Homestead became the location of the biggest immigrant youth detention center in the country. What kind of conditions did teenagers face there?


Homestead’s detention center opened under Obama in 2008 to house unaccompanied 13- to 17- year-old migrants. Some kids came with relatives, but were separated and labeled “unaccompanied” anyway. A for-profit company ran the center, and, under Trump’s zero tolerance policies, the center saw a huge surge, from 1,200 kids to 3,600. Some had to be put in tents. About 22,000 young people eventually passed through this place.


We had trouble finding out the real living conditions inside. The center’s officials denied entry to members of the local school board and even members of Congress.

Later, shortly after the center shut down, allegations of sexual abuse including by staff — started coming to light.


What strategy did you follow to get the detention center closed?


The center sits next to a military air base with constant noise and a Superfund site as well. Working with EarthJustice, the group that represented the detained youth, we emphasized the intersection between migrant and environmental issues. We spotlighted the toxic environment threatening the health of the kids.


What role did young people play in the protests?


Before I joined the AFSC, I organized at a local nonprofit that advocated for immigrant rights and provided some services, including evening classes. When the big wave of minors began coming in, we found that they were required to be in some type of school to apply for asylum. But the public schools routinely denied them entry due to admission requirements their parents couldn’t meet or didn’t understand. For example, they had to show Social Security numbers and vaccination records that they often did not have. Some indigenous migrants didn’t speak Spanish, let along English!


Formerly detained youth became organizers through a combination of education and advocacy. First, we helped them gain an understanding of how the immigration system really works and how that system affects young people. Then, at press conferences and rallies, we centered the voices of kids who had been detained to act as advocates for other similar youth, to demand their freedom and the Homestead detention center’s closing.


Using art allowed our young people to express messages that they could not express with words. Activities like yelling “no están solos” and playing music from outside the detention center fence, writing letters to those inside, and even standing on stools so they could see each other over the fence provided a needed human connection. Our youth demonstrated love and gave hope to the kids inside.

The Center was going to reopen under Biden. What happened?


We organized again! Biden then backtracked and asked for “other options.” But were staying vigilant. We’re demanding healthy environments and expediting the uniting of detained youth with their sponsors. We’re also demanding transparency on what happened to the children inside and social and emotional support services that focus on the traumas the youth have faced.


And we want a ban on private for-profit facilities. But we see all these demands as stop-gaps. The only humane solution: shut down all the detention centers, permanently.