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October 19, 2021

Groups Probe Government Over Migrant Children’s Possible Exposure to Toxic Chemicals

Advocates sue federal agencies to learn more about Florida site with known contaminants, including arsenic, lead, and mercury

Contacts

Alejandro Davila, adavila@earthjustice.org, (760) 595-3518

Lis-Marie Alvarado, LMalvarado@afsc.org, (786) 523-2805

Washington, D.C.

Today, Earthjustice, on behalf of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), sued in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to compel several federal agencies to respond to unanswered Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests regarding the Florida Homestead migrant detention center for unaccompanied children. Advocates have for years said detained children there are exposed to environmental hazards. Now the complaint seeks a response to FOIA requests submitted to agencies over two years ago for records of environmental contamination, and other safety conditions at and near the detention center, along with plans for migrant detention there.

While Homestead has not housed migrant children since 2019, the detention center is in “warm” or standby status. The Biden administration considered reopening the site in March 2021.

The detention center in Homestead, Florida, is unsuitable for migrant children as it is adjacent to the Homestead Air Reserve Base and a toxic Superfund site, according to Earthjustice and AFSC. In conjunction with the complaint, Earthjustice and AFSC released “The Toxic Truth,” a new report detailing the known hazardous and concerning conditions at Homestead Detention Center.

The Homestead detention center is near 16 sources of contamination, including sites with arsenic, lead, mercury, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and trichloroethene. These contaminants are linked to developmental harm in children and can cause cancer, damage to the kidneys, liver, and immune system. At one point it was the largest juvenile detention center in the United States and could hold up two 2,700 minors, some of whom had been separated from their parents.

The new report documents two primary sources of contamination:

  • Contaminated soil: This type and concentration of soil contamination can produce particulate matter that is harmful if accidentally consumed, breathed in, or comes into contact with the skin. Children could come into contact with contaminated soil or groundwater via dust, flooding, playing outdoors, or storm surge.
  • Contaminated groundwater: Directly southeast of the camp is a site where a building was once used to store flammable chemicals, acids, and other hazardous waste. Arsenic contamination at the site has increased over time — suggesting that legacy contamination is not being properly contained.

“The federal government’s practice of detaining migrant children at often-contaminated military sites must end, and we call on the Biden Administration to officially shut down the Homestead detention center,” said Dominique Burkhardt, senior attorney at Earthjustice. “The children who were detained at Homestead, advocates like AFSC, and the surrounding community have a right to know the extent of the environmental and health hazards at the site. By bringing this lawsuit, we are holding these federal agencies accountable to their obligations under FOIA, to provide information to the public.”

The FOIA requests sought information regarding contamination and other environmental conditions at and near the detention center, along with plans for migrant detention at the facility. The requests were originally submitted to the Air Force, Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Department of Labor, Department of Health and Human Services, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). DHS initially referred the FOIA request to its sub-agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). To date, the Air Force, DHS, and ICE have failed to respond to the requests. Earthjustice filed suit against the Air Force, DHS, and ICE to compel them to comply with FOIA.

When people are detained in custody, the detention site becomes their residence. Even the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) acknowledges that these sites are not safe for people to live in because they do not meet the standards for the residential screening levels, which are significantly more protective than current industrial screening levels. In addition to environmental pollutants, children previously detained at the camp were exposed to chronic noise from fighter jets at levels associated with cognitive injury and developmental harm.

“Our communities worked tirelessly to close the Homestead detention center in 2019 because we believe no child should be held in detention,” said Lis-Marie Alvarado, director of AFSC’s Florida program. “The fact that the young people who were incarcerated at the Homestead detention center could have been exposed to toxins both in the land and the water makes their detention even more dangerous and immoral. We are calling on the Biden administration to not reopen the Homestead detention center and instead to permanently shut it down.”

Earthjustice and AFSC are calling on the Biden administration to end the detention of migrant children across Miami-Dade county and permanently close the Homestead detention camp, guaranteeing that no one will ever be detained or incarcerated there again. Migrant children should be cared for in nurturing, safe environments designed for their well-being not detention centers and children who’ve been separated from their families need to be reunited with them or placed with sponsors as quickly as possible. We implore that the Biden administration fund and implement community-based alternatives that comply with the rights of children at all stages when in the custody and care of the federal government and enact any and all immigration policies that uphold the rights, dignity, and humanity of all people.

About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.