HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Perched on a ladder, Senator Elizabeth Warren peered across the street and over the green fence into a sprawling detention center here for migrant youth Wednesday. When she finally spotted a few children in neon orange baseball caps walking in single file, she began enthusiastically waving.
“Sometimes they don’t let them wave, right?” Warren asked a child who had climbed the ladder with her, as dozens of reporters and cameras pressed in. “Oh, there they go!”
Warren pumped her arm even harder as the teenage detainees began waving back.
Just hours before appearing center stage at the first Democratic presidential debate in Miami, Warren traveled to the Homestead detention center to be a “witness” to the Trump administration’s treatment of migrant children, she told the hordes of reporters and activists who thronged her in the 94-degree heat.
“It is a moral stain on the United States of America,” she said.
Warren is just one of several candidates in South Florida for the debate who have journeyed to the privately operated and unlicensed shelter 30 miles south of Miami in a blue wave of outrage. Beto O’Rourke, Kamala Harris, Eric Swalwell, Julian Castro, Pete Buttigieg, John Delaney, and Amy Klobuchar all visited or plan to visit the detention center, holding it up as a symbol of what they consider Trump’s indifference to — and exacerbation of — an immigration crisis at the nation’s southern border.
The visits come as immigration has begun to dominate a presidential primary that had revolved around issues like economic inequality and health care. Reports of squalid conditions at a border station holding migrant children in Clint, Texas, and a shocking photograph showing a migrant father and his 23-month-old daughter drowned in the Rio Grande have stoked new outrage among Democrats.
But at this week’s debates, slamming Trump’s policies may not be enough, as the candidates could face direct questions about how they would approach immigration reform as president. Warren, for example, has made detailed policy proposals the backbone of her presidential campaign, but a broad immigration reform plan has not been among them.
As Warren looked over the fence, where patchy grass ringed a dirt soccer field next to towering white tents, she remained tightly focused on promoting her recent plan to end for-profit detention centers, but did not describe any plan to address the influx of unaccompanied children seeking asylum overall.
“I put out a plan to end the private incarceration of our children in facilities like this,” she said while standing on a ladder to wave at the children detained in Homestead. “This is just one more example of what’s so badly broken in Washington, a place that’s just working great for the rich and the powerful, working great for those who invest in private prisons. But it’s not working for the people whose lives are destroyed.”
Her plan, however, does not explicitly extend to contracts given to the federal Department of Health and Human Services, which is responsible for all unaccompanied minors, and it also doesn’t address the fate of children kept at not-for-profit shelters. When asked about that discrepancy by a reporter, Warren clarified that she wanted to end all private detention. “Locking up people for money is not what the United States [stands for],” she said.
Warren announced her last-minute decision to visit Homestead after an activist implored her to go during a town hall at Florida International University Tuesday night before.
“I know your heart is with those children, but we need you there, we need your presence,” the activist said.
Warren surprised the crowd by saying she would go the next day. “Come and join us if you can,” she said.
Ultimately, Warren and her aides arrived with two buses of supporters and a crush of reporters, bringing a sudden burst of chaos to the quiet streets around the facility. A couple of people seized the opportunity to take a selfie with Warren, smiling for the camera while the white tents loomed behind them. The senator thanked activists, doling out hugs and telling some to “stay strong.”
Later, a long line of detained children filed out of a tent and into the 94-degree heat. One shorter youth draped a shirt over his head, perhaps to keep the sun off.
Warren never went inside the facility but toured an outpost that has been set up outside, where volunteers take shifts keeping watch across the street, and hoist big cardboard hearts into the sky to catch the attention of the migrants inside. A chalk sign hanging on a canopy marked the length of the vigil: 136 days.
Homestead has not been accused of the same level of neglect as the facility in Clint, but the detention center, which houses thousands of kids, many in temporary tents, has been the subject of lawsuits from immigration advocates who argue it violates federal laws to keep children in a secure, prison-like facility.
Mary Breeding, 75, a retired public school teacher who lives in Homestead, is part of a group called the Dedicated Dems who come to the facility every Wednesday.
“This is in our backyard, so we’ve known about it a long time,” said Breeding, who sometimes climbs ladders set up across the street from the facility so she can wave at the children inside. “When we catch their attention, they wave and say good morning or whatever. It’s important they know we’re here.”
Breeding hoped presidential candidate visits like Warren’s would raise awareness about the site, but Guadalupe de la Cruz, an organizer with an immigrant advocacy organization called We Count, told Warren she was missing a chance to engage more broadly with other immigration issues that are part of life here.
“There’s so many folks that are undocumented that work here, are working in harsh conditions, especially this heat,” de la Cruz told Warren as they crouched on the ground, surrounded by dozens of reporters. “We’re just glad you’re here, but we’d also like this moment to have more of a deeper conversation as to what’s really going on Homestead.”
Earlier this week, Warren’s campaign announced she supported a plan from Julian Castro, the former secretary of Housing and Urban Development and another presidential candidate who has made immigration a major focus of his campaign, to decriminalize crossing the border without permission.
“We should not be criminalizing mamas and babies trying to flee violence at home or trying to build a better future,” she said in a statement.
But Warren told reporters the issue is deeply personal to her, noting that her son-in-law is an immigrant and she has found it difficult to explain to her own grandchildren why kids their age are in detention centers.
“The first question I was asked is, ‘What did they do wrong?’ And the answer is nothing,” Warren said. “They are just pawns in Donald Trump’s ugly game.”