HOMESTEAD, Fla. >> U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson accused the Trump administration of a “cover-up” after officials denied him entry today to a detention center for migrant children in South Florida where he had hoped to survey living conditions.
Nelson and U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, both Florida Democrats, went to the contractor-run Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children following reports it was receiving detained migrant children who had arrived in the country illegally.
Wasserman Schultz said the facility was being used for an estimated 1,000 children, aged 13 to 17, who arrived here as unaccompanied minors as well as children separated from their families at the border. She said two other facilities in South Florida were being used for younger children.
“It is an affront as the senior senator of this state that an agency head would tell me that I do not have entrance into a federally funded facility where the lives and health of children are at stake,” Nelson said.
President Donald Trump’s immigration policies have come under intense scrutiny following reports of the forced separation of migrant children from their parents. Democrats and some Republicans are urging an end to the practice at the U.S.-Mexico border. Thousands of children split from their families at the U.S. southern border are being held in government-run facilities.
Nelson tweeted later today that Health and Human Services officials had told him that 94 children who were separated from their families were being held at the Homestead facility.
“The Trump administration’s actions today to block us from checking on these kids is inexcusable,” Nelson wrote.
Wasserman Schultz said her staff had spoken today with the Florida-based company, Comprehensive Health Services, contracted to run the facility. She said her staff was told the lawmakers would be “welcomed warmly and allowed into the facility.”
But Nelson said Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services Eric Hargan told him it would take two weeks for them to get access.
“I think what they’re doing is a cover-up for the president,” Nelson said.
Trump doesn’t like the negative response he’s received, even from fellow Republicans, Nelson said.
“Are they abusing these kids? Are they sleeping on the floor? Are they in cages, like we’ve seen in some videos?” Wasserman Schultz asked after being barred from the building.
The Florida facility is overseen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Department spokesman Kenneth Wolfe said in an email Monday that it had reopened as “a temporary unaccompanied alien children program facility.” He did not provide additional details.
An Associated Press reporter was denied access to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar while he was at a Miami hospital today to meet with opioid patients. Spokesman Gavin Smith barred the AP reporter from asking Azar questions about the immigration facility because an interview with the secretary had not been pre-arranged.
Several dozen children could be seen this morning playing soccer outside the building behind a chain link fence, mostly talking and shouting to each other in Spanish. Some did cartwheel flips while running across the field.
Reporters were not allowed onto the property. Security officials would not let reporters near the facility or provide details on conditions inside.
Martin Levine, from the Miami suburb of West Kendall, came to the facility with a sign showing a Nazi guard pulling a child away from woman with a Jewish star, and saying “Nazis took children away. Trump inhumane.”
Levine said he believed the policy to separate families was immoral.
“This is not a Democrat or Republican issue, because all of the former first ladies have found this policy despicable,” Levine said.
Republican lawmakers from Miami-Dade County have condemned the policy of separating families crossing the U.S. border.
Florida’s other senator, Republican Marco Rubio, said in a tweet today, “Let’s change the law so we can hold families together while awaiting expedited hearings.”