Fifty Unitarian Universalists joined hundreds of protesters on Father’s Day, June 16, at a detention center in Homestead, Florida, that holds thousands of immigrant children and is the nation’s largest facility for detaining these children.
The group stood in pouring rain singing, marching, and shouting “Free the children!” and “End detention!” to show solidarity for the children in the facility, a fenced-in campus next to a military base near Miami. About 300 people attended the vigil, according to Everette R.H. Thompson, campaign manager of Side With Love at the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).
Organized by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), the Father’s Day vigil was the culmination of a week of action designed to shut Homestead, a for-profit detention center from which a number of corporations are benefitting financially, according to the Miami New Times. The vigil drew people from a variety of faith groups as well as people not religiously affiliated. The AFSC and its partners have been holding a daily vigil at Homestead for months.
UUs from a number of Florida congregations were there, including members of the UU Congregation of Greater Naples, the UU Congregation of Miami, the UU Fellowship of Boca Raton, River of Grass UU Congregation in Davie, and First Unitarian Church of Orlando, said the Rev. Amy Carol Webb, minister of River of Grass, which rented two vans to carry thirty congregants to the protest. The protest drew local and national media attention, including from CBS News. A videographer who is a member of River of Grass, Rebecca Rice, filmed the event.
“Our hope is to shut it down,” said Webb. “We’re living our lives on the side of love, and we are called to welcome immigrants and to respect the dignity of all people.”
On June 7, the Trump administration announced plans to house as many as 4,000 unaccompanied children in three new detention facilities, two of which would be on U.S. military bases, according to the UU Service Committee (UUSC), including one in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, which was used to intern Japanese Americans during World War II. The third would be operated by a for-profit company, like the Homestead facility. With these plans for expansion, the incarceration of children “is an urgent issue,” said Susan Leslie, the UUA’s Congregational Advocacy and Witness director.
“The experience of being physically present at the Homestead detention center was powerful and deeply troubling because I knew that just beyond the fence where we stood, over 1,000 children are being held in indefinite detention,” said the Rev. Kathleen McTigue, director of activism and justice education at the UUSC, who traveled from Boston for the vigil. “The government is building more such centers as fast as it can, in order to imprison many thousands more children.”
Opponents say the Homestead facility is not only immoral but violates the Flores Settlement, a federal consent decree requiring the government to make every effort to release children in detention either to family members or adult sponsors, or to place them in non-prison settings that are licensed to care for children. In June, the Trump administration announced it was “canceling English classes, recreational programs, and legal aid for unaccompanied minors staying in federal migrant shelters nationwide,” according to the Washington Post.
Webb said many members of River of Grass are withdrawing their funds from banks that have associations with the Homestead facility and that the congregation’s funds also will be withdrawn from these banks. “While [individually] we aren’t particularly rich, together we can make a difference,” Webb said. Some banks, including JP Morgan and Wells Fargo, have recently announced they plan to stop financing corporations in the private prison industry, according to the Miami Herald.
The action by immigrant advocates “shines a glaring light on the two factors that truly motivate immigration policy right now,” said McTigue: greed, in that “for-profit detention companies are reaping windfall profits off the backs of children, at taxpayer expense”; and the misguided treatment of a humanitarian crisis as a crime. “This is both morally bankrupt and quite obviously ineffective,” McTigue said. “Desperate people will always migrate in search of safety for themselves and their children.”