HOMESTEAD, Fla. — A half-dozen Democratic presidential candidates traveled to a detention center for unaccompanied minors Friday, highlighting party unity as they pledged to reverse the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
“You see here a lot of people who may have been competing for the last couple of days, but are absolutely on the same side” on the treatment of young asylum seekers, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg told reporters.
Joining Mr. Buttigieg were Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro. The group — accompanied by Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, whose district includes Homestead — attempted to use Mses. Harris, Gillibrand and Mucarsel-Powell’s positions in Congress to be allowed into the facility. As expected, they were denied. Self-help guru Marianne Williamson later joined the huddle outside.
The Department of Health and Human Services said the site wasn’t closed to visits, but that they needed to be pre-scheduled. The agency, which oversees the care of unaccompanied children while they await immigration proceedings, has contracted with a non-government company to run the Homestead facility. HHS denied accusations of mistreatment of minors at the facility and said children received health care, education and daily recreation.
The Trump administration has been scrambling to deal with a surge in Central American families and children seeking asylum at the southern border, and says resources have been stretched to the breaking point. But Democrats have criticized current migrant policy as overly harsh and inhumane, and a graphic photograph published this week of a Salvadoran father and toddler daughter who drowned in the Rio Grande ignited public outrage.
On Thursday, Congress sent a $4.6 billion bill funding humanitarian aid for migrants at the southern border to President Trump, of which nearly $2.9 billion will go towards care of unaccompanied children.
The visit to Homestead came the day after the second of two Democratic presidential debates in Miami, in which candidates attacked President Trump’s handling of the humanitarian crisis at the border but also took shots at others on stage.
Mr. Castro spoke emotionally about the drowned father and child, and attacked former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke at Wednesday night’s debate for not supporting the repeal of a provision in U.S. law making it a crime to enter the country without authorization. On Thursday night, all 10 candidates on stage said their health care proposals would cover undocumented immigrants, and instead clashed on other issues.
But the candidates’ anger over the Trump administration’s handling of undocumented immigrant children has banded the candidates together.
“Let’s be clear about what’s going on here, there are people who are literally profiting off the incarceration of children, reflect on that for a moment,” said Ms. Harris on Friday. She vowed that if she were elected president, one of her first actions would be to shut down for-profit detention facilities.
Marleine Bastien, the executive director of the pro-immigrant Family Action Network Movement, applauded the presidential candidates’s visit, butsaid she wanted action immediately. “They need to pressure Trump,” Ms. Bastien said as she stood atop a ladder looking over the fence at the children walking between buildings.
Ms. Bastien and other activists held up heart-shaped signs and shouted and waved at the children in the yard.
At various points Friday, most of the candidates walked down the road to the cluster of ladders to look over the fence.
Mr. Castro was visibly emotional as he waved a heart-shaped sign and described the children he was seeing on the other side, some of them in orange hats “the color of prison uniforms.” After being urged by the activists to say something to the children, Mr. Castro said — in Spanish — “We’re here for you. You’re not alone.”
— Chad Day Contributed to this article.
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