Senator tours Florida teen detention camp he wants shut down

FILE - In this Feb.19, 2019 file photo, children line up to enter a tent at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in Homestead, Fla. U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley said Monday, March 11, 2019 that he toured the Florida facility and found children are being held there for too long in a restrictive environment. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File)

MIAMI — A Democratic senator from Oregon advocating against migrant youth detention camps says he toured a Florida facility and found children are being held there for too long in a restrictive environment.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley said late Monday that he talked to three boys who also confirmed reports that employees told teenagers they would not be reunited with family if they misbehaved.

"We should be having an expedited process to have kids placed with sponsors," Merkley told The Associated Press. "The principle is you don't keep kids locked up."

Department of Health and Human Services spokesman Mark Weber said Wednesday the allegation that children were told they wouldn't be reunited with their families if they misbehaved was "strange." He said he would reach out to the facility's director for more information.

About 1,600 children in government custody are housed at the privately run center in Homestead, Florida. The senator says it is the largest and least regulated of the facilities where the government holds children who cross the Mexican border.

The agency says children spend 58 days on average there, compared to 25 days spent when officials offered a press tour in June.

Merkley has introduced legislation to shut down unlicensed facilities.

The Florida Department of Children and Families has said in an emailed statement that the facility is federal and the state child welfare agency "does not have any jurisdiction or involvement with children placed there."

An unlicensed detention camp closed in January in Tornillo, Texas. But as the government announced the closure in Texas in December, it announced an expansion from 1,350 beds to 2,350 beds in Homestead. The agency says the expansion depends on the need.

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