Lawmakers kept from entering Florida immigration facility

Congressmen representing Northeast Florida weigh in on push for legislative fix

HOMESTEAD, Fla. – U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson vowed to take action Tuesday after he and other lawmakers were turned away when they tried to access a Miami-area immigration facility housing hundreds of children.

Nelson and U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, both Democrats, didn't mince words as they spoke with reporters afterward, with Nelson speculating the Trump administration is "hiding something."

"This is absolutely ridiculous and I am ashamed of this administration that they are doing this," said Nelson, adding that he planned to share his experience with fellow lawmakers on the Senate floor.

RELATED: Trump immigration furor underscored in Florida | Republicans craft bill to keep detained families together | The truth behind this photo of an 'immigrant child' crying inside a cage | Inside Border Protection's Texas detention center

Wasserman Schultz said the lawmakers were told they were not allowed to enter the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children without first providing two weeks' notice.

The congresswoman said the administration's family-separation policy, which has resulted in an estimated 2,000 children being placed in detention facilities over a six-week span, "continues to smack of cover-up."

The 1,000-bed facility overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services had been reopened as a temporary facility for "unaccompanied alien children," a department spokesman said in an email Monday.

Gov. Rick Scott's office, however, released documents Tuesday that showed that federal authorities in February notified state officials and members of Congress that the Homestead facility would be reopened. Federal authorities didn't give an exact date, but said the Homestead location would reopen after damage from Hurricane Irma was repaired. The release from HHS also stated that the facility would only be used for "unaccompanied alien children" detained by immigration officials.

Later Tuesday, Scott called on Trump's administration to stop separating the families. The Republican governor sent his request in a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. Scott's letter also requested that federal authorities notify state officials when they bring into Florida migrant children who have been separated from their families.

Scott also wants to know what services are being provided to the children and whether they have had any health screenings. He said the information is needed to make sure that the children are being protected.

Tuesday's visit by lawmakers comes as the White House faces increasing pressure over its policy allowing authorities to separate members of families detained while illegally crossing the Mexican border into the United States.

While reporters were not allowed into the facility, which is run by a contractor, the visit came a day after Customs and Border Protection released video showing the inside of a similar facility in McAllen, Texas.

The video clip, which showed dozens of children living inside chain-link enclosures and using cots and foil-like materials as bedding, sparked an uproar among critics that detainees were living in cages.

Reaction to the administration's policy of separating immigrant children from their families has been bipartisan.

Florida's other senator, Republican Marco Rubio, said in a tweet Tuesday, "Let's change the law so we can hold families together while awaiting expedited hearings." 

Stephen Davis, a Jacksonville-based immigration attorney, told News4Jax he does not believe the conditions are inhumane, but said he believes lawmakers need to review existing immigration laws.

"Congress is the one under the Constitution that has control over immigration laws," he noted, "and it is up to Congress to change the law."

As Trump left the Capitol on Tuesday evening after a closed-door session with House Republicans, he avoided most questions, but paused long enough to make a comment.

"We had a great meeting," Trump said. "These are laws that have been broken for many years, decades, but we had a great meeting."

In that meeting were lawmakers with Northeast Florida ties.

U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho’s spokesman said, “The congressman is still in a meeting with members and POTUS about this week's immigration bill. We can try for tomorrow.”

WATCH: Lawmakers representing Northeast Florida weigh in on immigration

U.S. Rep. John Rutherford’s office said he was in meetings as well, and offered the following statement:

“I am pleased to see that the House intends to take up legislation this week to clarify the issue of separating families. The bill requires that a child must not be separated from their parent or legal guardian while in DHS custody.”

U.S. Rep. Al Lawson sent News4Jax a statement, beginning with, “It is horrendous that the Trump Administration is choosing to tear families apart at the border. This goes against everything that we stand for as a nation.“ 

News4Jax also reached out to the office of U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday, but did not received a response.

The News Service of Florida reported that when asked about the issue Monday during a campaign appearance in Bradenton, DeSantis said he would “keep the family together and repatriate them back as a family unit.”

About the Authors: