Department of Health and Human Services spokesman Mark Weber recalls how he briefed workers at a housing facility for migrant children in Carrizo Springs, Texas, after the Associated Press wrote a short article about its opening. "I'm sorry to report that they called this a detention center," says Weber in an interview with The Washington Post, noting that the assembled professionals groaned. "But I am happy to say that at least they said we were providing educational services."
The article in question was headlined, "South Texas facility to detain migrant teens opens." Though it didn't use the term "detention center," it made ample use of the verb "detain." And Weber these days is urging media outlets to get out of the business of stating that HHS is in the business of "detaining" migrant children or otherwise managing "detention centers."
"Shelters" is the preferred term of HHS.
"It's almost every day that I have to pick up the phone and call somebody," says Weber."This is an issue that's in the news a lot and quite frequently the headline will say 'detention center,' 'prison' or worse. And the reporter will say, 'I didn't write it in the story and I didn't write the headline.'"
To judge from keyword searches, Weber's rebranding efforts haven't been terribly successful. Last week, for example, Democratic presidential candidates visited the Homestead Emergency Care Shelter. The Miami Herald called it both the "nation's largest child migrant shelter" and the "Homestead detention center for migrant children."
Headlines in other media include CBS News: “Inside the controversial migrant detention center in Homestead, Florida.” Newsweek: “Alyssa Milano tries to visit Homestead detention center on community visit.” Vox.com: “Democratic candidates demand closure of for-profit child detention facility.” Axios: “America’s only for-profit detention center for migrant children.” Reuters: “First stop for migrant kids: For-profit detention center.” HuffPost: “'It feels like we are prisoners': Migrant children describe trauma at Florida detention center.” New York Times (photo caption): “The detention center in Homestead, Fla., is intended to keep children for only a few days but has been holding them for much longer.”
Some basics: HHS facilities are distinct from those operated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) near the country's southern border, the subject of extensive recent news coverage, as well as a report from the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) inspector general. The report found desperate and overcrowded conditions at these detention centers. Under U.S. law, "if DHS learns that a person in its custody is an 'unaccompanied alien child' (UAC), it must transfer the UAC to [HHS] custody within 72 hours" - to shelters, that is, according to Weber.
These places are "run based on child-welfare principles by people who have dedicated their lives to helping children succeed in their lives and when uninformed individuals malign these shelters, they are maligning people who have dedicated their lives to helping kids," says Weber, who notes that the program, under the auspices of HHS' Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), has accommodated nearly 400,000 children since 2003. The HHS facilities are for children who have crossed the border without a parent or legal guardian.
ORR officials seek to find a sponsor for the children - a mother, father, family member or, in some cases, a foster parent. Referrals of unaccompanied children to HHS care are an up-and-down affair. In fiscal year 2013, the agency says, the number was 24,668, followed by 57,496 in fiscal 2014, 33,726 in fiscal 2015 and 59,171 in fiscal 2016. As of June 10, 2018, (fiscal 2019), the corresponding number was 52,000.
Jerry Iannelli, a reporter for Miami New Times, toured the Homestead shelter/detention center in February and heard the spiel directly from management. "It's not a detention facility, we don't like when it's called a detention facility, and we would prefer that you call it a shelter because we're helping kids," says Iannelli, summing up the appeal.
Official preferences haven't prevailed with Iannelli, who uses the term "detention center," as well as "migrant camp" to describe Homestead. In actual shelters, says Iannelli, kids have the ability to get up and leave. By contrast: "This is a place where children are kept behind a fence and can't leave," he says.
When the children move from one activity to another, they do so in single file and with guards bookending the line, says Iannelli. "I've toured prisons in my job, and the place looks like a prison. It just does." One former resident who arrived at Homestead during the Obama years described the facility to Iannelli as a "child prison."
As for the confinement allegation, Weber writes in an email that the Flores settlement requires that children be located in the "least restrictive environment ... As a result the majority of children are placed in state licensed residential facilities (state laws vary regarding locks and door) as opposed to locked detention centers."
He compares the situation to a school: "If a child walks out of a local public school without permission, do they just let the kid go? No, they call a parent, they call the police, and the police go out and find the kid, who is returned to the school," he says, also noting that the kids "don't leave because ORR is providing a safe place to stay and complete wrap around services while the facility staff are working with the child to find a sponsor who can provide a safe home."
"They say the kids can leave - is that a fact?" asks Jay Ducassi, Metro editor of the Miami Herald, who expresses great doubt about the children's freedom of movement. "It is a bit Orwellian: Call it this, don't call it that," says Ducassi, who says his newspaper won't "shy away" from calling the facilities "detention centers." "We feel that that is appropriate," he says.
Or, perhaps, too kind. Thomas Kennedy, political director for the Florida Immigrant Coalition, says, "I would go a step further and call them concentration camps." There are guards on the premises, strict regimentation of the children's meal times, showers and other activities, plus constraints on mobility even within the facilities, argues Kennedy. "We have worked with shelters in the past. We know what a shelter looks like," he says.
The South Florida Sun Sentinel, in an editorial on Homestead, verily mocked HHS' "shelter" campaign: "This so-called shelter should be shuttered and the children either united with family members or placed in licensed community-based programs and homes."
Weber has heard those critiques. "My question to individuals who complain about HHS facilities is: What do they want the government to do - just let these kids loose on the streets, for strangers to pick up?" he asks. In his campaign to recast the facilities, Weber says he has "never gotten a correction" from a news organizations. "But I have received commitments to adding a sentence that HHS disputes the notion that these centers are detention centers," he says.
Erik Wemple, The Washington Post’s media critic, focuses on the cable-news industry. Before joining The Post, he ran a short-lived and much publicized local online news operation, and for eight years served as editor of Washington City Paper.