People hold signs during a rally to close immigrant detention centers.
People hold signs during a rally to demand Border Patrol facilities and migrant detention centers in the United States to be closed down outside Homestead detention center in Homestead, Florida, on Jul. 12, 2019. - (Photo by Gaston De Cardenas / AFP via Getty Images)

In Homestead, Florida, an agricultural town just 25 miles south of Miami, organizers are anxiously awaiting news from the Biden administration about whether or not a nearby detention center for migrant teenagers will reopen. As many as 3,728 youth between the ages of 13-17 were incarcerated in the privately run detention facility prior to its closure in the fall of 2019. But organizers who successfully advocated for shuttering the facility three years ago say that its revival will put young migrants at further risk by detaining them directly adjacent to a toxic Superfund site at the Homestead Air Force Base. 

“At any moment, [Homestead] could potentially reopen should there be a sudden influx at the border,” said Guadalupe de la Cruz, program director of the Florida branch of the American Friends Service Committee, one of the main organizations fighting for the permanent closure of the detention center. 

Across the country, former military bases, including some that conduct reserve training, rank as some of the most contaminated sites. The Homestead Air Force Base operations include hazards like arsenic, lead, mercury, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, trichloroethane, and PFAS chemicals, also known as “forever chemicals” because they never break down. The designation by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for this level of contamination is Superfund, sites which receive specific congressionally-approved funds for their cleanup and remediation. 

Raul Garcia, legislative director of Earthjustice, said that the federal government has perpetuated a dual crisis regarding the care of immigrant minors by detaining children at these sites. First, detained children largely lack access to medical, emotional, educational, and developmental care. And second, they’re subject to toxins in the water, soil, and air that can cause cancer, reproductive ailments, immune issues, and a host of other illnesses. 

No publicly available information suggests the federal government is conducting environmental testing or monitoring of detained youth for symptoms of illness caused by these toxic chemicals. In the absence of such information, the federal government can avoid culpability for the immediate and long-term dangers of chemical exposure. For advocates, this is a frustrating double bind: there’s ample evidence of the harms of Superfund sites and yet the lack of data about detention center sites means that they can’t extend those conclusions to incarcerated young people. Garcia says that they’ll continue to push the federal government to release the environmental records of the detention center sites. 

Neither the EPA and ORR responded to Prism’s inquiries for comments.

“The detention facilities themselves pose incredible dangers to the people incarcerated because of the environmental hazards that exist within them,” Garcia said. “We’re investigating more and more detention centers, and it seems like these types of hazards are everywhere.” 

Detention can be a sentence to life-threatening health conditions

The detention center in Homestead, Florida, now rebranded as the Biscayne Influx Care Facility—for the nearby body of water and in an attempt to shed its sinister past, which includes multiple abuse claims against detention center staff—isn’t the only unaccompanied minor influx facility built on or near toxic Superfund sites. Others are planned for the future, according to the non-profit environmental organization, Earthjustice

According to Mark Kinkade, an Air Force public affairs official, the Homestead Air Reserve Base environmental restoration program currently includes 40 Superfund sites and the main substances that have been “identified as a concern” are arsenic and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PFAS). These PFAS “are a recent emerging concern,” Kinkade wrote in an emailed statement to Prism. 

No on-base drinking water sources were over EPA’s lifetime advisory of PFAS pollution of 70 parts per million, though a 2020 sampling of off-base drinking water wells found that three wells had PFAS levels above 70 ppm. Kinkade did not comment on what the exact results of this testing were.   

Chemical contamination is an environmental hazard that is more likely to burden some U.S. residents over others: low-wealth and low-income communities of color are disproportionately exposed to toxins leaching from Superfund sites, with the EPA finding that nearly 50% of those living within three miles of a Superfund site are BIPOC. As of 2017, 21% of BIPOC U.S. residents lived in close proximity to toxins. 

While low-income BIPOC pay the price of toxic exposure, corporations get rich off of the subjugation of vulnerable people, as shown at Homestead: the corporation owned by the private military contractor DC Capital Partners ran the facility for a fee of $750 and $775 per day per child. These detention facilities reap immense profits while migrant youths are exposed daily to toxins that could harm them long after they’ve been released.

Despite the federal government’s own understanding of the impact of toxins on human health and that these impacts are largely felt by economically and politically disenfranchised BIPOC the racist reality has not dissuaded the Biden administration from considering reopening Homestead and creating other facilities like it. 

Environmental protection and health protection is irreconcilable with immigration detention

Raul Garcia

To be clear, the Biden administration isn’t the only administration to incarcerate young migrants or burden vulnerable young people with toxic chemical exposure. For instance, there was no environmental testing before the facility was opened as an “influx” detention center in 2016 — “influx” refers to non-permanent centers constructed when other facilities operated by the federal government’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) are at capacity. Despite the Biden administration’s objections to the Trump administration’s treatment of immigrants, the president has intentionally maintained the federal government’s ability to ensure that private corporations can run detention centers.

Paula Muñoz, the director of campaign organizing with the Florida Immigrant Coalition, says that this lack of environmental testing of facilities has continued, and that she and other organizers have not received communications from any of the seven entities that coordinate the processing and detention of immigrants, including the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees ORR. Muñoz is hopeful that environmental information about soil, water, and air quality near the detention center will help reinvigorate the fight that was successful in shutting down Homestead in 2019. 

“There’s never been clear communication to the public about the conditions,” Muñoz said.  

But what information is known is deeply concerning: the land next to the Homestead Detention Center is so hazardous to human health that in 2005, when Miami-Dade County acquired some of the land adjacent to what would later become the detention facility, officials agreed to an environmental use restrictive covenant prohibiting the land for development of homes, hospitals, and schools.

“No judge sentences any person in the United States to cancer,” Garcia said. “You don’t get sentenced to reproductive health issues down the road in your life. You don’t get sentenced to acquiring asthma while you’re in detention.” 

But by default, Garcia says, that is exactly what is happening. 

As the ongoing Earthjustice investigation reflects, Muñoz said that the criminalization of immigrants is systemic because “it’s not just Homestead; it’s throughout the country.” So even if one center gets shut down, children will just be moved to another one, and that’s where “there needs to be more of a push around mass incarceration and mass detention and the way that the U.S. criminalizes people”for seeking asylum, Muñoz said.

Homestead Detention Center is the status quo for the U.S. 

Detention centers run by state or local authorities are subject to federal oversight, though facilities operated by private entities on behalf of the federal government, like Homestead, often skirt regulations that would protect against mistreatment. These include the federal government’s own regulations about how many days young migrants should be detained before being unified with a family member or relocated to a resettlement location. Other existing standards for treatment are woefully inadequate. The American Civil Liberties Union claims that “there are no regulations or enforceable standards regarding detention conditions, including medical treatment, mental health care, religious services, transfers, and access to telephones, free legal services, and library materials.”

These practices are part and parcel with the U.S.’s long-standing hostility toward immigrants, says Juan Caballero, a professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law who runs the college’s Immigration Law Clinic. Immigration laws, almost by definition, attempt to draw a line between an in-group and an out-group, which later determines how one is treated socially or subject to criminalization systemically. The language used to describe immigrants denies one’s individuality and treats those seeking to build a home in the United States as a “faceless mass,” Caballero said. In a circular process, the language that allows for someone’s dehumanization later supports laws that deny an immigrant’s humanity. Take the Alien Sedition laws, Caballero says, which were some of the country’s earliest anti-immigrant federal statutes put on the books whose terminology continues to this day. 

Immigration to the United States remains legal, but laws and limitations are enforced disproportionally, with Black and Latinx immigrants often subjected to the brunt of immigration inequities. In general, federal immigration laws have almost always been considered civil, rather than criminal, violations. This may seem like a slight difference in terminology, but the fallout is significant. People charged with civil offenses aren’t entitled to legal representation, Caballero says, which a growing body of research says has a considerable effect on whether or not someone is allowed to remain in the U.S.

Even immigrants seeking asylum are still treated largely as criminals, though seeking asylum is both a human right and protected under domestic and international laws. Most of the youth emigrating from Central and South America are claiming asylum, but they and others like them are still held in prison-like conditions until they’re permitted to make their case in front of a judge. 

“They look, for all intents and purposes, identical to jail and prisons,” Caballero said. 

Amnesty International, which toured Homestead in April 2019, wrote that “Homestead has the look and feel of an industrial-scale facility,” with “brick and mortar buildings; metal shipping containers converted into offices for legal and other services and administration; and soft-sided structures.” The detention center had a north and a south campus, with gender-segregated sleeping arrangements. There were no doors on the toilets or showers, just curtains. Surrounded by prison-like walls and all-hours security, detained youth must wear ID badges “that are scanned as they enter and leave buildings.” 

The conditions even got the attention of members of congress during the 2020 presidential election, including that of Vice President Kamala Harris, who said that what young immigrants were being put through was a “human rights abuse being committed by the United States government.”

Standards for immigrant youth care — including environmental protection — are low 

Advocates fear that detained children are at increased risk from exposure to toxic chemicals because the federal government abides by environmental standards that are flimsy or even nonexistent, at least when it comes to the Homestead Detention Center. The detention center’s status as a federal “influx” facility means that the federal government is able to evade health and safety standards that a permanent ORR or state-run facility would have to adhere to. Children housed at the privately-run facility until its closure in 2019 were not able to access menstrual products unless they provided a written request and one HIV-positive youth was placed in a segregated medical unit and deprived of his education. According to the same Amnesty International report, youth “ostensibly in a mathematics lesson had no relevant course books in front of them, but were instead copying out the words of the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance.”

Monitoring of environmental quality at these facilities is similarly haphazard. Garcia says that the Air Force, which is tasked with managing the investigation of the Superfund site and its subsequent clean up, has not responded to any of his organization’s request for information on the environmental toxins present at Homestead Air Force Base. The requests of Garcia and his colleagues are being sidestepped in other ways as well. Earlier this year, HHS released its environmental justice plan. Missing from that plan, Garcia says, was any mention of the environmental conditions of immigrant youth detained by the federal government. 

“Environmental protection and health protection is irreconcilable with immigration detention,” Garcia said. 

Privately-run immigrant detention facilities, like Homestead, have some of the worst records of environmental degradation, Garcia says, and for the most part, the EPA has neglected to levy fines or seek redress against those violations. Garcia says that Earthjustice’s investigation pointed to a decade of infractions “that probably amounted to tens of thousands of individual violations.” Instead of imposing fines, Garcia says the federal agency offered the violators the equivalent of an unenforced cease and desist letter. 

“That’s a huge problem, particularly for the enforcement division office at EPA,” Garcia said. 

“It’s not even a question of science, it’s a question of political will”

Homestead Air Force Base has been on the National Priorities List of toxic sites in need of clean up since 1990, and EPA records state that all “immediate threats” were “addressed” as of 2016. Another federal report in 2018 found that the site did “not pose an immediate threat.” But records from the independent Environmental Working Group show that the military site is still polluted with PFAS forever chemicals, likely due to the military’s use of a military-grade fire suppressant developed by its own scientists in 1966. PFAS chemicals are associated with cancer and are especially harmful to a child’s development—and yet the EPA has vastly underestimated its consequences. A 2021 report by the Centers for Disease Control argued that the EPA limits for PFAS exposure should be ten times lower than the current lifetime exposure advisory of about 70 parts per trillion

Jared Hayes, a policy analyst at the Environmental Working Group, says that the Department of Defense has known since the 1970s that PFAS chemicals were dangerous and only admitted to their role in making their own employees sick in 2011. There is also ample evidence that the chemical industry lobbied heavily for the government to resist labeling PFAS as hazardous to human health. Later this year, the EPA is expected to set a designation for PFAS as hazardous, which will speed up the remediation process, but Hayes said that “the actions now, while welcome, are a little late to the game.” 

Currently, there are 679 sites that are known or suspected to have PFAS, of which the DoD is following the Superfund process to determine what sort of cleanup actions are needed. For each site, this begins with an investigation, soil and water testing, and a development of a plan for cleaning, which could include pumping out contaminated water, heat-treating soil, or replacing soil altogether. Hayes says that it’s a process that can take years. As it relates to PFAS, the DoD hasn’t yet begun any cleanup processes at the hundreds of contaminated sites. 

While the DoD is responsible for the cleanup of its own contaminated sites, Hayes says that a majority of the responsibility falls on the EPA. 

“Up until recently, they haven’t been doing a whole lot on the issue, and they have known that PFAS is a problem since the early 2000s and have taken very little action,” Hayes said. 

Because PFAS chemicals don’t break down in the environment, the toxins build up in the blood, tissue, and nervous systems, meaning PFAS is the type of chemical that is “more dangerous as you’re exposed to over time,” Hayes said. This is especially pertinent considering that youth at Homestead were routinely held as much five or ten times longer than 20 days, the legal standard established by the 1997 Flores Agreement

While a ‘hazardous’ designation of PFAS chemicals and an infusion of federal funds to begin the investigations that precede actual cleanup might help the EPA rectify environmental conditions at Superfund sites, the likelihood of quick progress is slim. According to Juan Declet-Barreto, a  senior social scientist for climate vulnerability at the Union of Concerned Scientists, the EPA’s backlog of Superfund cleanups was at a 15 year high in 2020. The cleanups that the agency did complete leave Declet-Barreto with concerns, given that many of the remediated sites were near majority-white communities, which disproportionately escape environmental harm. 

It’s a clear example of the environmental injustices that communities of color face, Declet-Barreto said. The injustices may begin with the source of pollution, but further injustices are created in the maintenance of polluted sites or in the time that passes while the responsible agencies debate how best to navigate a site’s remediation. In the meantime, if the Biden Administration reopens the Homestead facility despite all the apparent dangers, the lack of political will to take any responsibility for the facility’s hazardous conditions will put detained youth in more danger.

“Ultimately I think, it’s not even a question of science, it’s a question of political will,” Declet-Barreto said. “Environmental injustice is built on broken promises.”

Ray Levy Uyeda

Ray Levy Uyeda is a staff reporter at Prism, focusing on environmental and climate justice. Find Ray on Twitter @raylevyuyeda.