One by one, many of the 2020 Democratic candidates have trusted a small step ladder at the side of a Florida road this week to stand up and bare witness to what activists say has been an atrocity going on months, as migrant children have been packed into a detention centre in Homestead.
They have peered over a chain link fence with black mesh that obscures the packed dirt yard inside from the casual passer-by. Inside, they see children in orange hats marching in lines between large tents. They see very little joy.
The situation in Homestead, a suburb about an hour from the site of this week’s debates, has snapped into focus in the past week, with reports emerging about squalid conditions at a child migrant detention centre in Texas, alongside the shocking image of a father and daughter from El Salvador who drowned in the Rio Grande river.
Beto O’Rourke, the former congressman from Texas, was among those to make the disturbing new pilgrimage on Thursday, where he peered over at the children and held a large heart in the air so they could see. Mr O’Rourke, whose home town El Paso is on the border, then shouted words of encouragement in Spanish.
“Estamos aqui con ustedes” he yelled, cupping his hands around his mouth — we’re here with you.
Mr O’Rourke wasn’t the only one. Just a day earlier, Elizabeth Warren also bussed in a group of supporters and peered over the fence. Bill de Blasio made the trip early on Thursday morning, and Bernie Sanders came soon after that. Pete Buttigieg’s campaign announced he would stop by on Friday.
The 30-mile trip underscores the prominence that immigration issues are likely to have in the 2020 race, after nearly two years of Mr Trump's presidency that has made a hallmark out of cracking down on migrants to a degree that puts what many have described as an already hostile immigration system on an escalating nationalist path.
Even before the 2016 election, Mr Trump had described Mexicans as rapists and criminals. Since becoming president, that sort of rhetoric has manifested in harsh crackdowns on immigrants already in the US, and on families hoping to enter the country — leading to the detaining of children without their parents in facilities like Homestead.
Joshua Rubin is among those who has been camping out in Homestead on a near-daily basis, and organising to try and ensure the for-profit detention centre that nets some $775 a day per kid is closed down. Mr Rubin told The Independent he thought it was good the presidential candidates were seeing fit to come down and see what was happening.
“This place, once people see it, once people actually know what goes on here, they’ll demand that it be shut down,” he said, just after Mr Sanders took a glimpse, and was then turned away by workers as he attempted to gain entry into the camp.
In the past 137 days, at least one volunteer has been present outside of the fence each day, volunteers say. And, Mr Rubin said those numbers have increased — though, so has the population inside of the camp.
And he says that the situation is dire inside, with workers lacking training and expertise that could at least alleviate some of the strains of running a detainment camp for children in hot southern Florida.
“This place, you wouldn’t want to put them in charge of anything. They don’t know what the hell they’re doing. The people who work inside here know it. The kids feel it, they feel the incompetence,” Mr Rubin said. “They feel that there’s no interest in getting them placed, and I think they know, the way we know, that when you’re making $775 a day per kid, there’s no big hurry to get these kids with families.”
Officials at the facility did not immediately respond to enquiries.
Mariana Martinez, a 23-year-old organiser who lives in Homestead, said that she appreciated the 2020 candidates taking the time to make the trip to see the detention camp, but is concerned that the experience won’t translate into meaningful action if they should become president.
“We don’t want them to just use it for their platforms, we need commitments,” Ms Martinez, who met Mr O’Rourke upon his arrival at the centre, said.
Mr O’Rourke and others have said they plan on taking action, however. Ms Warren, before her trip, had already released a plan pledging to end funding for private prisons in the United States. Mr O’Rourke and Mr Sanders, during their visits, both pledge to fight against the corporate prisons, and cited organising as a way to bring pressure on lawmakers, and force change regardless of the president.
Mr O’Rourke even said that he thinks the executives making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year should be scrutinised for the detention system that is keeping children from their families.
“Absolutely,” Mr O’Rourke said when asked by The Independent if those executives should be held accountable for those roles. “Look, any time you have the suffering of children. Any time you have the deaths of children, and so far we know that seven children over the last year ... there’s got to be accountability, there’s got to be justice, or you will continue with these kinds of practices.”
When asked if John Kelly — Mr Trump’s former chief of staff and former US secretary of Homeland Security who left his government job and now works at Calibrun, the company that runs the site in Homestead — should be included in that group, Mr O’Rourke didn’t mince words.
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