Sun Sentinel: Wasserman Schultz wants authority to enter migrant centers without warning

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Washington, July 23, 2019 | comments
"This is an administration that has thumbed its nose at the law. They have repeatedly demonstrated that they have something to hide.”
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Wasserman Schultz wants authority to enter migrant centers without warning

By Andrew Boryga

Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz isn’t sure exactly what goes on inside the nation’s migrant detention facilities, but she wants the ability to check without warning that she’s coming.

Wasserman Schultz put forth a bill Monday prohibiting congressional members from being denied entry to any migrant facility operated by the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Health and Human Services or private contractors working on those agencies’ behalf. The bill also would allow congressional members to visit facilities without notice.

Wasserman Schultz said her difficult experience gaining access over the last two years — she was denied entry twice — made it clear there needed to be a law in place to help ensure oversight of facilities that until now have been restrictive in their access to elected officials.

“That obliterates any real oversight,” said Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat who represents Broward and Miami-Dade counties. “If [detention facilities] don’t give us any opportunities to see what is happening in real time, we can’t get a true picture of what is going on in there.”

The first time Wasserman Schultz visited the Homestead shelter with Sen. Bill Nelson in 2018, she was denied entry because she had not given two weeks’ notice, which the Homestead facility previously insisted on from elected officials. Today, federal law requires 48 hours’ notice.

This year, Wasserman Schultz tried to visit the shelter twice.

In April, she was once again denied, with the HHS citing her failure to give two weeks’ notice of her visit despite the fact that she had previously helped pass legislation that she believed removed the need for that notice.

HHS said in a statement after her visit that no laws had been broken. The department also said the two-week notice was needed in order to “ensure a facility visit does not interfere with the safety and well-being of our [children].”

Wasserman Schultz believes the real reason has more to do with the current administration in the White House.

"This is an administration that has thumbed its nose at the law,” she said. She alluded to the numerous allegations of illegal and unethical activity circling President Trump, his staff and his associates since he took office in 2016. “They have repeatedly demonstrated that they have something to hide.”

Earlier this year, Wasserman Schultz called for an investigation into Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly. In May, Kelly joined the board of directors of Caliburn International, the private company that runs the Homestead shelter.

After her most recent visit to the shelter earlier this month, she learned the federal government had reduced the number of children held there by 42% in 12 days, without explaining why or letting anyone know where the 943 missing migrants were sent.

As the state continues to stare down hurricane season, the congresswoman also has repeatedly asked the shelter to release its plans to secure children in the event of a hurricane. Shelter managers have yet to do so.

According to Wasserman Schultz, unrestricted access to detention facilities will allow members of Congress to continue to put pressure on the facilities. "We should have the right to conduct oversight anytime we feel the need to,” she said.

Compared with the horror stories of treatment at the U.S. and Mexican border, the congresswoman acknowledged that conditions in Homestead were not as grave. “Children are being adequately cared for,” she said.

However, she added that children in the shelter are not free to move about as they wish, are deprived of affection, and are often taught by unqualified instructors in less-than-ideal classroom conditions. “This is not a place that any parent would want their children to be for any length of time,” she said.

The Homestead detention shelter first opened during the Obama administration but has come under increased scrutiny after a surge of immigrant arrivals beginning in March 2018.

As of late, the detention center has become a pilgrimage of sorts for local and national politicians. Just last month, more than half of the Democratic presidential candidates in town for debates made an appearance there. None of them were able to do more than stand on a small foot ladder and peer over the fences.

Ultimately, Wasserman Schultz said, the full extent of the treatment that kids at the shelter are receiving is still uncertain. During each of her two visits, she believes the advanced notice has given the facility time to cover up anything it might not want lawmakers to see as well as prepare children to speak to her that say all the right things.

She believes it is important that members of Congress have the ability to pop in unannounced without giving a facility time to prepare their presentation.

“I want to know what the day to day life is like for real,” she said. “I don’t want anything to be canned.”

Read the full article here.

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