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Environmental Justice for Unaccompanied Migrant Children—Response to Request for Information (RFI): 2022 HHS Environmental Justice Strategy and Implementation Plan Draft Outline (Document No. 2022-07514)

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Earthjustice · American Friends Service Committee Florida · Hispanic Federation
Respond Crisis Translation · Alianza Nacional de Campesinas · GreenLatinos
Farmworker Association of Florida · National Hispanic Medical Association

Global Environmental Justice Project · Immigrant Action Alliance · Human Rights Defense Center
Labor Council for Latin American Advancement · MESA Community Empowerment and Violence Prevention

June 17, 2022
Submitted via email to OASHcomments@hhs.gov
Adm. Rachel L. Levine
Assistant Secretary for Health
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
200 Independence Avenue, S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20201
Dr. LaToria Whitehead
Senior Public Health Analyst, Centers for Disease Control
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
1600 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30329
Re:

Environmental Justice for Unaccompanied Migrant Children—Response to Request
for Information (RFI): 2022 HHS Environmental Justice Strategy and
Implementation Plan Draft Outline (Document No. 2022-07514)

Dear Adm. Levine and Dr. Whitehead:
Unaccompanied migrant children 1 in the United States are a uniquely vulnerable
environmental justice population: they are predominantly Latinx and Indigenous minors who are
fleeing poverty, violence, and climate change impacts in their home countries, who are then
routinely held by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in environmentally
hazardous detention settings. We therefore write to you as a coalition of environmental,
immigrants’ rights, social justice, and civic organizations to emphasize the environmental
injustices to which unaccompanied migrant children in your care are exposed. We further urge
you to address these injustices as a Policy Development and Implementation priority action in
your 2022 Environmental Justice Strategy and Implementation Plan (“environmental justice
strategy plan”). 2

Unaccompanied migrant children are children under age 18 who enter the U.S. without a parent or legal guardian
and who, by law, are placed in HHS’ custody and care. 6 U.S.C. § 279(g)(2). HHS’s Office of Refugee
Resettlement (ORR), within the Administration for Children and Families, is responsible for the care of
unaccompanied migrant children. Id. § 279(a).
2
Request for Information (RFI): 2022 HHS Environmental Justice Strategy and Implementation Plan Draft Outline,
87 Fed. Reg. 20876 (Apr. 8, 2022).
1

Background and Summary
Children who enter the U.S. unaccompanied are overwhelmingly Latinx and Indigenous,
from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico. 3 They are fleeing extreme poverty and
violence, including gang recruitment and violence, domestic abuse, and sexual and gender-based
violence. 4
Climate change is also becoming an ever-increasing factor in driving migration from
Central America, where droughts, floods, and extreme weather patterns have increased over
time, impacting crops and causing food insecurity and instability. 5 Children from Guatemala,
Honduras, and Mexico in particular are at “high” risk for exposure and vulnerability to
environmental hazards from climate change, according to UNICEF’s Children’s Climate Risk
Index. 6 As climate change contributes to their displacement and migration, children then face an
increased risk of exploitation and abuse. 7 They nevertheless risk dangerous and arduous
conditions to journey to the U.S., in search of safety and a better life.
Despite Congress expressly recognizing that unaccompanied migrant children do not
belong in detention-like settings, 8 HHS in recent years has engaged in a practice of placing many
of these children in detention camps on or near military bases that are in close proximity to toxic
waste sites. 9 And in at least one highly controversial instance, involving the Homestead
detention camp, private companies operated the facility, profiting off of the children’s
detention. 10 As detailed below, children detained at the Homestead detention camp and Fort
Bliss were and are near active Superfund and other waste sites contaminated with arsenic, lead,
mercury, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), asbestos, and radioactive materials, among other

Cong. Rsch. Serv., Unaccompanied Alien Children: An Overview, 2 (Sept. 1, 2021),
https://sgp.fas.org/crs/homesec/R43599.pdf; Am. for Immigr. Just., Do My Rights Matter? The Mistreatment of
Unaccompanied Children in CBP Custody, 16-25 (Oct. 2020), https://aijustice.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/DoMy-Rights-Matter-The-Mistreatment-of-Unaccompanied-Children-in-CBP-Custody.pdf (many migrant children,
especially from Guatemala, are Indigenous and speak one of the many Indigenous Mayan languages).
4
U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees & United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Families on the run: Why
families flee from northern Central America?, https://familiesontherun.org/ (last visited June 8, 2022); Am. Immigr.
Council, No Childhood Here: Why Central American Children are Fleeing Their Homes (July 2014),
https://www.americanimmigrationcouncil.org/sites/default/files/research/no_childhood_
here_why_central_american_children_are_fleeing_their_homes.pdf.
5
Abrahm Lustgarten, The Great Climate Migration, N.Y. Times Magazine (July 23, 2020),
https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/07/23/magazine/climate-migration.html.
6
UNICEF, The climate crisis is a child rights crisis, 73-74 (Aug. 2021),
https://www.unicef.org/media/105376/file/UNICEF-climate-crisis-child-rights-crisis.pdf.
7
Id. at 111.
8
HHS, Admin. for Children and Families, Fact Sheet, Unaccompanied Children (UC) Program (Feb. 17, 2022),
https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/uac-program-fact-sheet.pdf (citing 8 U.S.C. § 1232(c)(2)).
9
See Earthjustice, Hazards at Migrant Detention Facilities, https://earthjustice.org/cases/2021/hazards-at-migrantdetention (last visited June 7, 2022)
10
Dan Primack, America’s Only For-Profit Detention Center for Migrant Children, Axios (June 27, 2019),
https://www.axios.com/2019/06/27/homestead-private-equity-migrant-children-camps.
3

2

toxins, which are particularly dangerous to children, who are still developing. 11 Some detained
children were also exposed to chronic noise pollution from military jet flights at decibel levels
associated with cognitive harm. 12 HHS has considered and routinely considers other similarly
polluted and dangerous military sites to detain unaccompanied migrant children, such as the
Goodfellow Air Force Base, discussed below. 13
HHS should include the care of unaccompanied migrant children as a priority item in its
2022 environmental justice strategy plan. This issue should also be a top priority for HHS’
newly created Office of Environmental Justice. We demand that HHS immediately end its
policy of detaining migrant children in the first place, including on toxic and military sites. For
children who cannot be placed in the care of their parents, family members, or other appropriate
sponsors, HHS should fund and implement non-carceral, community-based alternatives for them
to live and thrive—as children—while their immigration cases are pending.
I. Children should not be held in detention camps
Congress has mandated that each child in HHS’ care must “be promptly placed in the
least restrictive setting that is in the best interest of the child.” 14 Thus, HHS has a legal
obligation to avoid the use of detention settings like “temporary influx facilities” and
“emergency intake” sites, which are in fact cramped detention camps that are intrinsically
harmful to children’s health and wellbeing. That a private company could then become enriched
from a migrant child’s detention—and harm—by operating these camps is wholly unjust and is a
practice HHS must end.
a. Detention harms children’s health and wellbeing, even long after they are no
longer detained
Detention profoundly harms the mental and physical health of the children who are
detained, many of whom faced significant trauma in their home countries. Studies have found
that most detained children reported symptoms of depression, sleep problems, loss of appetite,

Am. Friends Serv. Comm. & Earthjustice, The Toxic Truth: Organizing Against Migrant Child Detention,
Militarism, and Environmental Racism in Homestead, Florida, 15-20 (Oct. 2021),
https://earthjustice.org/sites/default/files/press/AFSC-Toxic_Truth-2021.pdf (“The Toxic Truth”); Earthjustice, Fort
Bliss Waste Sites and Potential Human Health Impacts at Proposed Migrant Detention Center (Nov. 2019),
https://earthjustice.org/sites/default/files/files/Fort-Bliss_Expert-Report_2019-11-18.pdf.
12
The Toxic Truth, supra note 11, at 24-27.
13
See, e.g., David Martin & Eleanor Watson, Pentagon Receives Request to Provide Space for Migrant Children at
Military Bases, CBS News (Mar. 24, 2021), https://www.cbsnews.com/news/migrant-children-pentagon-militarybases/ (Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Fort Bliss, Peterson Air Force Base, Fort Lee considered in 2021); Karen
Jowers, These Three Military Bases May Soon House Unaccompanied Immigrant Children, Military Times (June 5,
2019), https://www.militarytimes.com/pay-benefits/2019/06/05/these-three-military-bases-may-soon-houseunaccompanied-immigrant-children/ (Malmstrom Air Force Base, Fort Sill, Fort Benning considered in 2019); Doug
Stanglin, Military Bases Eyed for Temporary Shelter for Growing Number of Migrant Children, USA Today (June
17, 2018), https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2018/06/13/military-bases-eyed-site-tent-cities-housemigrant-children-report-says/697263002/ (Fort Bliss, Dyess Air Force Base, Goodfellow Air Force Base considered
in 2018).
14
8 U.S.C. § 1232(c)(2)(A).
11

3

headaches, and abdominal pains. 15 Children in migrant detention are more vulnerable to
substandard healthcare, and the health impacts of detention can be long-term, into adulthood.
When children are in detention facilities such as HHS’ detention camps, their lives and
movements are restricted, and they become subject to the rigid rules characteristic of prison and
detention settings—including restrictions on their abilities to move freely, strict meal schedules,
inability to control temperature or lighting, and practices like head counts or bed checks that can
occur throughout the night. 16
Physicians have therefore noted chronic sleep deprivation as a pervasive problem in
migrant detention facilities, which has caused children to experience mental health and
behavioral problems such as withdrawal, self-injurious behaviors, and suicidal ideation. 17
Additionally, detained children have reported inadequate nutritional provisions, restricted
mealtimes, and weight loss. 18 These detention camps are also ill-equipped to handle frequent
COVID-19 outbreaks caused by the crowded settings and inadequate disease prevention
measures by contractors who operate the facilities. 19 Indigenous children are particularly
vulnerable to mistreatment and inadequate care from the lack of social workers and facility
employees who can communicate with them in their native languages, such as Mam, Q’eqchi’,
or K’iche’. 20
The impacts of detention on the mental and physical health of detained children are
severe and long-lasting. 21 In one analysis, migrant children were found to have a tenfold

Kimberly A. Ehntholt et al., Mental Health of Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Adolescents Previously Held in
British Detention Centres, 23 Clinical Child Psych. Psychiatry 238 (Apr. 2018),
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29566557/; Ann Lorek et al., The Mental and Physical Health Difficulties of
Children Held within a British Immigration Detention Center: A Pilot Study, 33 Child Abuse & Neglect 573 (2009),
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19811830/; Fabricio E. Balcazar et al., Policy Statement on the Incarceration of
Undocumented Migrant Families, 57 Am. J. Community Psychol. 255 (Mar. 2016), https://www.community
psychology.com/incarceration-of-undocumented-families-a-policy-statement-by-scra/ (summarizing research). See
also Adolfo Flores & Hamed Aleaziz, Immigrant Children Were Burned With Scalding Water and Threatened at an
Emergency Shelter, A Whistleblower Said, BuzzFeed News (Sept. 8, 2021),
https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/adolfoflores/fort-bliss-immigrant-children-shelter-whistleblower (describing
conditions at a Pennsylvania emergency intake shelter in 2021, where “many children suffered from dehydration,
developed gastrointestinal issues, and refused to eat the food provided because it was inedible or unfamiliar”).
16
See Katherine R. Peeler et. al, Sleep Deprivation of Detained Children: Another Reason to End Child Detention,
22 Health & Hum. Rts. J. 317 (June 2020), https://cdn1.sph.harvard.edu/wpcontent/uploads/sites/2469/2020/06/Peeler.pdf.
17
Id.
18
Entholt et al., Balcazar et al., supra note 15.
19
Flores & Aleaziz, supra note 15.
20
The Toxic Truth, supra note 11, at 10-11.
21
Trine Filges et al., The Impact of Detention on the Health of Asylum Seekers: A Systematic Review, 28 Res. on
Soc. Work Prac. 399 (Feb. 17, 2016), https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1049731516630384.
15

4

increase in psychiatric disorders after detention. 22 Physicians have also warned that detention
can cause “toxic stress,” which is especially harmful to children, whose brains and other
biological systems are still developing. 23 Elevated stress hormones can affect memory, the
ability to focus, and behavior regulation, as well as increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes,
depression, and other chronic illnesses into adult years. 24 Despite a clear need for mental health
care for detained children, emergency intake shelters often lack adequate access to such care,
particularly to practitioners qualified to treat children who are having mental health crises. 25
Detention settings are an inherently harmful and damaging setting for children’s physical
and mental health. These harms become exacerbated when, as with unaccompanied minors, the
children may be experiencing trauma, are separated from their families, and/or have an inability
to communicate in their native language. These reasons, along with the fact that children are still
developing and health harms from detention camps can be permanent or long-lasting, require
HHS to urgently reassess and remedy how it cares for unaccompanied migrant children in its
custody.
b. For-profit child detention camps are unjust and should be abolished
One of the only things more unjust than detaining migrant children in these detention
camps is private companies profiting from the children’s detention. We call on HHS to abolish
its practice of contracting with for-profit companies to provide care for migrant children,
consistent with the principles of President Biden’s executive order ending privately operated
federal prisons. 26 A business model that depends on detaining children is fundamentally unjust
and untenable. Moreover, a capitalist construct designed to prioritize profit above all else while
keeping costs as low as possible is at odds with a mission of caring for a vulnerable population:
migrant children fleeing poverty, violence, and other forms of trauma. This moral and ethical
dilemma is made worse by the fact that it is government (taxpayer) funds enriching these private
companies.
Zachary Steel et al., Psychiatric Status of Asylum Seeker Families Held for a Protracted Period in a Remote
Detention Centre in Australia, 28 Australian & N.Z. J. of Pub. Health 527 (2004),
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15707201/. Detention has a negative impact on mental health in adults as well. In
a 2003 study, eighty-six percent of individuals in immigration detention reported experiencing symptoms of
depression, seventy-seven percent experienced anxiety, and fifty percent experienced Post-Traumatic Stress
Disorder. Physicians for Hum. Rts. & Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture, From Persecution to
Prison: The Health Consequences of Detention for Asylum Seekers, 2 (June 2003), http://www.pegc.us
/archive/Organizations/PHR_detention.pdf. Most of those individuals attributed their mental illness symptoms to
being detained and reported that symptoms worsened significantly during their detention. Id.
23
Jack P. Shonkoff, M.D, Toxic Stress: Issue Brief on Family Separation and Child Detention, Immigration
Initiative at Harvard Policy Brief 1, 1-2 (Oct. 2019), https://immigrationinitiative.harvard.edu/files/hii/files/
shonkoff_final_9.25.pdf.
24
Id.
25
Flores & Aleaziz, supra note 15; Elizabeth Trovall, Whistleblower Complaint Outlines Mismanagement, Abuse at
Texas Shelters for Migrant Kids, Houston Chronicle (Sept. 9, 2021),
https://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/immigration/article/Whistleblower-outlinesmismanagementand-abuse-at-16444752.php.
26
The White House, Executive Order on Reforming Our Incarceration System to Eliminate the Use of Privately
Operated Criminal Detention Facilities (Jan. 26, 2021), https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidentialactions/2021/01/26/executive-order-reforming-our-incarceration-system-to-eliminate-the-use-of-privately-operatedcriminal-detention-facilities/.
22

5

In addition to being fundamentally unjust, private, for-profit detention facilities are also
associated with increased mismanagement and malpractice. Private detention facilities are
associated with higher rates of assault, use of force incidents, and lockdowns. 27 When it was last
operational, the Homestead detention camp was the largest detention facility for migrant children
in the country and the only for-profit one. 28 Children detained at Homestead reported sexual
assault, overcrowding, inadequate healthcare, and inadequate language services. 29 Moreover,
according to an HHS Office of Inspector General report, ORR mismanaged its contract awards at
Homestead, paying $67 million to private company Comprehensive Health Services for the
facility to operate for three months after the last child had left and overpaying $2.6 million
overall. 30
* * *
Detention settings are inherently harmful environments for unaccompanied children, an
environmental justice population more vulnerable to the physical and mental health impacts and
the tolls of detention. Any HHS environmental justice strategy plan should end the use of
detention-like settings for children in the agency’s care and eliminate the practice of contracting
facility operations to private companies.
II. HHS should end its practice of detaining children on military bases and
contaminated sites
In addition to facing severe and long-lasting health impacts from detention itself, children
detained at HHS detention camps often face another public health threat: pollution. Many of
HHS’ detention camps have been in places that are highly polluted, with contamination from
Superfund sites, military bases, and/or industrial activity near the facility. A few such examples
are detailed below.

U.S. Dep’t of Just., Office of the Inspector Gen., Review of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Monitoring of
Contract Prisons (Aug. 2016), https://oig.justice.gov/reports/2016/e1606.pdf.

27

John Burnett, Inside the Largest and Most Controversial Shelter for Migrant Children in the U.S., NPR (Feb. 13,
2019), https://www.npr.org/2019/02/13/694138106/inside-the-largest-and-most-controversial-shelter-for-migrantchildren-in-the-u-; Graham Kates, Nation’s Largest Holding Facility for Migrant Children Expands Again, CBS
News (Apr. 4, 2019), https://www.cbsnews.com/news/homestead-nations-largest-holding-facility-for-migrantchildren-expands-again/.
29
Amnesty Int’l, No Home for Children: The Homestead “Temporary Emergency” Facility (2019),
https://www.amnestyusa.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Homestead-Report_1072019_AB_compressed.pdf;
Monique O. Madan, Sex abuse claims revealed at Homestead shelter, where staff was not vetted for child abuse,
Miami Herald (July 15, 2020), https://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/immigration/article244244402.html.
30
HHS, Office of the Inspector Gen., The Office of Refugee Resettlement Did Not Award and Manage the
Homestead Influx Care Facility Contracts in Accordance with Federal Requirements (Dec. 2020),
https://oig.hhs.gov/oas/reports/region12/122020001.pdf.
28

6

a. Fort Bliss
In March 2021, ORR constructed a temporary detention camp with the capacity to detain
10,000 children at Fort Bliss, a U.S. Army Base in El Paso, TX. 31 HHS is still detaining
children at the camp at Fort Bliss today, despite calls from advocates to shut down the facility for
egregious violations, such as lack of clothing and sanitation for children; contractors with no
childcare experience being responsible for the children; unqualified healthcare staff; and
bullying, rioting, and sexual harassment. 32 Worse still, as detailed in Earthjustice’s July 2021
letter to HHS and its published reports, Fort Bliss has a significant amount of environmentally
contaminated, toxic sites. 33
Earthjustice began investigating potential contamination at the Fort Bliss sites in 2018,
when the Trump Administration announced that it was considering constructing a temporary
influx shelter for children and/or families at the base. 34 Earthjustice’s investigation uncovered
grave potential threats to the health and safety of children detained there from toxic waste
contamination. Fort Bliss has at least 80 distinct contaminated areas, or operable units (“OUs”),
regulated under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act
(CERCLA or “Superfund”) or Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) hazardous
waste cleanup programs. 35 At these OUs, contaminants include chlorinated VOCs; aromatic
VOCs including benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, and xylenes; radioactive materials; asbestos;
explosive compounds, including unexploded ordinance; per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances
(PFAS); semi-volatile organic compounds; and pesticides and herbicides. 36

See Cong. Rsch. Serv., supra note 3, at 31; Lauren Villagran, Workers Describe Sprawling Tent City, “Deeply
Alarming” Conditions for Kids at Fort Bliss Shelter, El Paso Times (May 27, 2021),
https://www.elpasotimes.com/story/news/2021/05/27/migrant-children-shelter-el-paso-fort-blissconditionsunacceptable/7446897002/; see also Marlene Lenthang, COVID-19 Cases Among Unaccompanied
Migrant Children in Facilities Spark Concerns over Crowding, ABC News (Mar. 31, 2021),
https://abcnews.go.com/Health/covid-19-cases-unaccompanied-migrantchildren-facilities-spark/story?id=76788478.
32
See, e.g., Fallon Fischer, Whistleblower Group Calls for Investigation into Safety of Migrant Children at Fort
Bliss, KFOX14 (Apr. 6, 2022), https://kfoxtv.com/news/local/fort-bliss-condtions.
33
Earthjustice, Stopping Toxic Cages: An Unprecedented Collection of Government Documents Sheds Light on the
Trump Administration’s Process to Create Migrant Detention Centers (Nov. 21, 2019),
https://earthjustice.org/features/migrant-children-detention-center-fort-bliss-documents (“Stopping Toxic Cages”);
Earthjustice, Expert Report: November 2019, Fort Bliss Waste Sites and Potential Human Health Impacts at
Proposed Migrant Detention Center, https://earthjustice.org/sites/default/files/files/Fort-Bliss_Expert-Report_201911-18.pdf (“Fort Bliss Expert Report”); Letter from Mychal Ozaeta & Melissa Legge, Attorneys, Earthjustice, to
HHS et. al (July 15, 2021), https://earthjustice.org/sites/default/files/files/2021_07_15_-_letter_demanding_closure_
of_the_fort_bliss_army_base_emergency_intake_site.pdf.
34
Despite Earthjustice’s best efforts to obtain information from the relevant agencies through multiple FOIA
requests, we do not know whether the location of the current temporary influx facility at Fort Bliss is on the same
parcel of land identified as a potential location at Fort Bliss for the family detention facility considered in 2018,
which was the subject of the Stopping Toxic Cages Fort Bliss Expert Report. It is also unclear whether the Army
and/or HHS prepared a new EA as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) or relied on a
previously prepared EA from 2012 that involved a different project of a significantly smaller scale, which was the
inadequate approach to NEPA compliance taken by the Trump administration for the proposed temporary detention
camp at Fort Bliss. See Stopping Toxic Cages, supra note 33. Relying on an outdated EA for a different project of
a significantly smaller scale is both inadequate and unlawful under NEPA.
35
Fort Bliss Expert Report, supra note 33, at 3.
36
Id.
31

7

Exposure to these hazardous chemicals can lead to cancer, neurological damage, and
injury to major human organs. Children face an even greater risk of harm from these chemicals
because they are undergoing critical periods of rapid growth and development that make them
more sensitive to even low levels of chemical exposures and more likely to suffer irreversible
harm than adults. 37 Given the sheer number of contaminated sites at Fort Bliss still undergoing
cleanup, it is likely that children detained experience exposure to multiple hazardous chemicals
simultaneously, compounding the risk of cumulative adverse health effects.
Earthjustice’s investigation also uncovered that the site at Fort Bliss for the proposed
family detention center was close to an illegal dump and spill site known as the Rubble Dump
and Spill Site, or simply the Rubble Dump Site. 38 Testing at this site in the late 1990s revealed
levels of cancer-causing chemicals in the soil at more than 460 times the level for cancer risk
determined by EPA. 39 Despite these alarming levels, the Army did not properly clean up or
remediate this site, particularly with regard to carcinogenic VOCs and arsenic. 40 Arsenic is a
carcinogenic heavy metal linked to lower IQ scores in children, and it was present in the Army’s
post-“remediation” soil sampling data at 19 times the level for cancer risk for residential soils
according to EPA. 41
The Army has also failed to control access to the site to prevent known illegal dumping. 42
Therefore, there may be additional waste at the site, of unknown type and quantity.
Children detained at Fort Bliss clearly face substantial and imminent threats to their
health and physical safety. Fort Bliss and military bases like it—replete with contaminated sites
at various stages of (sometimes insufficient) cleanup—are wholly unsafe and unsuitable for
children, and HHS should eliminate its harmful practice of placing children at these military and
environmentally contaminated locations.
b. Homestead
From 2016 to 2019, HHS detained migrant children at the Homestead detention camp
right next to the Homestead Air Reserve Base, in Homestead, Florida. With 3,200 beds at its
peak, it was the largest detention facility for migrant children in the country and the only private,
for-profit one. 43 Children were routinely detained at the Homestead detention camp for
months. 44 Though the detention camp is not currently operational, the latest reports are that the
facility remains in “warm status,” meaning it can be reopened at any time. 45 Indeed, in March
U.S. EPA, Children’s Health: Children are Not Little Adults!, https://www.epa.gov/children/children-are-notlittle-adults (last visited June 8, 2022).
38
Fort Bliss Expert Report, supra note 33, at 1.
39
Id. at 4.
40
Id. at 6.
41
Id. at 5-6.
42
Id. at 7.
43
Burnett & Kates, supra note 28.
44
Miriam Jordan, Migrant Children Are Spending Months ‘Crammed’ in a Temporary Florida Shelter, N.Y. Times
(June 26, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/26/us/homestead-migrant-children-shelter.html.
45
Monique O. Madan and Alex Daugherty, Exclusive: Homestead Detention Center for Unaccompanied Migrant
Teens to Reopen Under Biden, Miami Herald (Feb. 23, 2021),
https://www.miamiherald.com/article249449265.html.
37

8

2021, the Biden Administration announced plans to reopen the detention camp as the “Biscayne
Influx Care Facility,” in response to a claimed rise in unaccompanied migrant children crossing
the border. 46
The Homestead detention camp is an unsafe place for children because it is directly
adjacent to Homestead Air Force Base Superfund OUs, historically contaminated by munitions
and industrial waste; waste from aircraft maintenance, testing, and disposal; and improper
disposal of waste paints, pesticides, solvents, waste oils, waste gasoline, and hydraulic fluids. 47
Though the Homestead detention camp is not technically part of the current Homestead Air
Reserve Base property, it was previously part of the former Homestead Air Force Base, before a
Base Realignment and Closure process in the 1990s sectioned off parcels of the base’s land for
sale and redesignated the Homestead Air Force Base as the Homestead Air Reserve Base.
Near the detention camp, there are 34 Superfund OUs. 48 Sixteen of these OUs are within
two-thirds of a mile of the detention camp. The closest OUs to the detention camp are
contaminated with arsenic, lead, mercury, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and
trichloroethene. 49 Exposure to these contaminants can cause cancer; damage to the kidneys,
liver, and immune system; anemia; and developmental harm in children. 50 Indeed, arsenic
contamination at OU 21 has increased over time. 51 This is worrisome given that OU 21 is one of
the closest OUs to the detention camp.
Though some of the Superfund OUs have been remediated, cleanup at the site is ongoing.
Not only is the site yet to be fully remediated so that it is safe for reuse and redevelopment, but
the government has determined that the only appropriate use for the site is industrial, not
residential. 52
Moreover, a 2018 Environmental Assessment (EA) of the detention camp documented
toxins including asbestos, lead-based paint, and mold in the facility’s decaying buildings. 53 The
same assessment warned that a 1992 study found elevated levels of radon in some buildings, and
some of the buildings with radon had not been mitigated or retested since 1992. 54 The EPA
reports that radon causes lung cancer and that children are “considerably more sensitive to the
carcinogenic effects” of radon than adults. 55
The Homestead detention camp is not only toxic, but it is also a site of noise pollution
that is harmful for developing children. It is adjacent to the Homestead Air Reserve Base
Id.
U.S. EPA, Superfund Site: Homestead Air Force Base, Homestead Air Force Base, FL, Cleanup Activities,
Background, https://cumulis.epa.gov/supercpad/SiteProfiles/index.cfm?fuseaction=second.cleanup&id=0404746
(last visited June 8, 2022).
48
Id.
49
The Toxic Truth, supra note 11, at 1.
50
Id. at 16.
51
Id. at 18.
52
Superfund Site: Homestead Air Force Base, supra note 47; The Toxic Truth, supra note 11, at 21-22.
46
47

The Toxic Truth, supra note 11, at 23.
Id. at 23.
55
Id. at 23-24.
53
54

9

runway, which routinely flies F-16C fighter jets that produce noise in the 65-69 decibel zone. 56
According to the Air Force, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the U.S. Department of
Housing and Urban Development, human residence is “normally unacceptable” in areas exposed
to noise between 65 and 75 decibels. 57 Moreover, according to the World Health Organization
(WHO), chronic environmental noise exposure is linked to impaired cognition and
neurodevelopment in children, particularly related to tasks involving central processing and
language, such as reading comprehension, memory, and attention. 58 Exposure to chronic noise
during childhood can potentially “impair development and have lifelong effect on educational
attainment.” 59 Studies suggest that an estimated 30 percent of children routinely exposed to
noise at 65 decibels experience cognitive impairment. 60
The extent of the environmental hazards at the Homestead detention camp are
nevertheless not fully known because Earthjustice and American Friends Service Committee
have had difficulties obtaining records under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) from the
Air Force, the agency responsible for Superfund cleanup at the base, which has led to pending
litigation.
In sum, the Homestead detention camp is wholly unsuitable for children to live for any
period of time, as it is directly adjacent to a military base and active Superfund site, where
buildings are decaying and fighter jets routinely come and go, producing noise levels associated
with cognitive and developmental harm.
c. Goodfellow
In 2018, HHS evaluated Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas, as a potential
site for a detention camp for unaccompanied children. 61 The proposed detention camp at
Goodfellow would have had the capacity to detain 7,500 unaccompanied migrant children. The
site that HHS and the Air Force chose for the detention center was located directly on top of
Superfund OUs, specifically a former firing range and landfill. The OUs are contaminated with
lead, arsenic, benzene, PFAS, and other chemicals associated with increased risks of cancer and
permanent neurological damage. 62 Other contaminants detected at the site include VOCs, which
Id. at 25.
Headquarters Air Force Reserve Command, Air Installation Compatible Use Zone (AICUZ) Study for the
Homestead Air Reserve Base, Florida, at 3-1 (Oct. 2007),
https://www.homestead.afrc.af.mil/Portals/134/Documents/SusOps/AFD-071029-030.pdf.
58
WHO, Burden of disease from environmental noise (2011) at 45-48,
https://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/136466/e94888.pdf.
59
Id. at 45.
60
Id. at 48, Fig.3.2 (the percentage of children who experience cognitive impairment as a result of chronic noise
exposure increases from 10 percent at 55 decibels to 30 percent at 65 decibels and 55 percent at 75 decibels).
61
Dept. of the Air Force, 17th Training Wing, Draft Environmental Assessment for the HHS Temporary Facilities
for Sheltering Unaccompanied Children at Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas (July 2018),
https://www.goodfellow.af.mil/Portals/5/documents/DEA-HHS%20Temporary%20Facilities%20
at%20Goodfellow.pdf?ver=2018-07-06-171402-213.
62
See Earthjustice, Toxic Cages: Toxic Contaminants at Goodfellow Air Force Base Put Children’s Health at Risk,
at 1 (Feb. 2019), https://earthjustice.org/sites/default/files/files/Goodfellow_report_2019-02-11.pdf (“Toxic Cages:
Goodfellow”); David Lang, Toxic Threats for Migrant Children at Goodfellow Air Force Base (Jan. 9, 2019),
https://earthjustice.org/sites/default/files/files/Toxic-Threats-for-Migrant-Children-at-GAFB.pdf (“Goodfellow
Expert Report”).
56
57

10

contaminate the air and threaten human health through vapor intrusion causing nausea,
headaches, and damage to the nervous system, kidneys, and liver. 63 Most of the Superfund OUs
had never been fully evaluated to determine the nature and extent of pollution and either have
not yet been remediated or were remediated but not to standards deemed safe for children’s
housing.
Of particular concern were contaminated sites overlapping with and immediately adjacent
to the footprint of the proposed detention center. One such site within the proposed detention
center housing area was the Small Arms Firing Range, used by base personnel from the 1960s to
the 1990s. Lead was detected in soil near the range at levels 27 times higher than EPA standards
for lead in soil in play areas. 64 Lead is a powerful neurotoxin, and there is no known safe level
of lead in the human body. Lead exposure can result in numerous adverse health outcomes in
young children, including brain damage, neurodevelopmental harm, learning disabilities, stunted
growth, hearing problems, and even death. Although some cleanup occurred in 2009, the
remaining contamination levels nevertheless rendered the area unsafe for residential use,
according to EPA. 65
HHS planned to build the detention camp on top of a second overlapping OU known as
the Southeast Landfill. 66 Between 1970 and 1982, when regulations for addressing spilled
chemicals were nearly non-existent, the Air Force dumped toxic chemicals, fuels, pesticides, and
other solid wastes at the landfill. 67 Testing and monitoring at the landfill were inadequate to
determine the extent of the soil and groundwater pollution at the site or to determine whether it
was safe to build there. Earthjustice’s expert identified vapor intrusion as a concerning potential
pathway of exposure to contaminants in the groundwater at the landfill. 68 Groundwater
monitoring had previously identified multiple contaminants in the groundwater at the landfill,
including 1,1,2,2-tetrachloroethane, tetrachloroethene, trichloroethene, carbon tetrachloride,
acetone, phthalates, several pesticides, lead, and arsenic; however, contractors working for the
Air Force destroyed the groundwater monitoring wells at the site in 2007, leaving the current
state of groundwater contamination largely unknown. 69 While the Air Force had conducted a
partial cleanup, the landfill was never properly closed, nor was it remediated to residential
standards to be considered safe for children. 70 Worse still, recent dumping around the landfill
has not been investigated and potentially poses additional environmental hazards.
Widespread PFAS contamination is another issue of concern at Goodfellow. Goodfellow
has at least nine fire training areas where Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) containing PFAS
was stored and used, and where releases to soil or groundwater may have occurred. 71
Toxic Cages: Goodfellow, supra note 62, at 1.
Id. at 4.
65
Id. at 3.
66
Id.
67
Goodfellow Expert Report, supra note 62, at 7.
68
Id.
69
Id.
70
Toxic Cages: Goodfellow, supra note 62, at 3.
71
Id. at 3-4. The Louis F. Garland Department of Defense Fire Academy is located at the base; See Goodfellow Air
Force Base, 312th Training Squadron, https://www.goodfellow.af.mil/About-Us/FactSheets/Display/Article/372985/312th-training-squadron/ (last visited June 6, 2022).
63
64

11

Goodfellow Air Force Base had only begun to identify and investigate PFAS releases at the base
in 2018.
PFAS are both extremely persistent and resistant to environmental degradation, meaning
PFAS releases to soil and groundwater from decades ago may still cause adverse health effects.
Studies have linked PFAS exposure to adverse neurodevelopmental effects, including learning
delays and increased risk for ADHD and autism. 72 Other health impacts of PFAS exposure
include altered thyroid and immunological system function, altered timing of puberty onset, and
increased risk of cancer. Children exposed to PFAS have been found to have a higher body
burden, or elevated levels of PFAS compared to adults, and the exposure may affect a child’s
health throughout development and potentially later in life. The proximity of the PFAS/AFFF
release areas to the site of the potential detention camp—and particularly the potential pathways
for exposure to PFAS through inhalation, ingestion, or skin contact with PFAS contaminated
soil—creates a serious health and safety risk for any children who would be detained there.
Due to these and other known toxic waste sites, HHS should never have considered
Goodfellow as a potential site for detaining children. Though HHS never built a temporary
detention camp at Goodfellow, unless the agency establishes a clear policy against detaining
unaccompanied migrant children at military and contaminated sites, nothing prevents the agency
from dusting off its problematic 2018 plans and using this site in the future.
* * *
Under the Flores Settlement Agreement, unaccompanied minors must be treated with
dignity and respect and, only if necessary, held in “safe and sanitary” facilities that take into
account the “particular vulnerability of minors.” 73 Furthermore, Section 7.5 of the ORR’S
policies for influx care facilities requires proper physical care and suitable living
accommodations for unaccompanied minors, in compliance with state child welfare laws and
state and local building, fire, health, and safety codes. 74 Detention settings surrounded by toxic
waste and other environmental hazards, on or very close to military bases, do not meet the
legally and agency-required standards of care for minors.
HHS’ environmental justice strategy plan should end the practice of detaining children at
facilities near such contaminated sites. HHS’ plan should also require robust environmental
reviews prior to using or constructing any facility for the care of children, to ensure children are
not exposed to harmful toxins, contaminants, noise pollution, or anything else that could harm
the children’s health and development.
Toxic Cages: Goodfellow, supra note 62, at 4-5.
See Stipulated Settlement Agreement, Flores v. Reno, No. CV 85-4544-RJK(Px) (C.D. Cal. 1997) at 7 ⁋ 12A.,
available at https://www.aclu.org/sites/default/files/assets/flores_settlement_final_
plus_extension_of_settlement011797.pdf (“Flores Settlement Agreement”).
74
ORR revised its policies in 2019 as required by the 2019 Emergency Supplemental Appropriations for
Humanitarian Assistance and Security at the Southern Border Act, Pub. L. 116-26, which at Section 404 requires the
standards of influx care facilities to generally be in keeping with the Flores Settlement Agreement. See ORR,
Children Entering the United States Unaccompanied: Section 7, Policies for Influx Care Facilities,
https://www.acf.hhs.gov/orr/policy-guidance/children-entering-united-states-unaccompanied-section-7#7.1 (last
visited June 8, 2022).
72
73

12

III. HHS Should Incorporate Robust Performance Measures and Transparent
Reporting into its Environmental Justice Strategy and Implementation Plan
Section VI of HHS’ RFI on its environmental justice strategy plan involves performance
measures and evaluations to account for progress and to demonstrate accountability. It is
imperative that HHS clarify the methodologies of such evaluations, whether its evaluations will
be summative or formative, and whether they will be conducted internally or externally.
Furthermore, progress evaluations should occur on at least a biannual or annual basis, to
demonstrate a commitment to swift action, public accountability, and achievement of measurable
results. All progress reports and evaluations should be made available to the public in an easyto-understand format. HHS should also hold public engagement sessions regularly and
periodically to receive input and answer questions about its environmental justice strategy plan
and its performance and implementation.
Conclusion
We call on HHS to end its inhumane practice of detaining unaccompanied migrant
children at detention camps on or near military sites and environmentally contaminated sites.
Unaccompanied migrant children in the U.S. are here as a matter of survival; they are fleeing
violence, extreme poverty, and direct impacts of climate change. It is unjust and against
established legal standards of care for HHS to detain migrant children in camps on or near
military bases with significant environmental hazards, such as active Superfund OUs, landfills,
RCRA waste sites, or noise pollution from military jet flights. These sites are replete with
contaminants known to cause cancer, neurological harms, and other significant health harms to
which developing children are particularly vulnerable. Beyond physical impacts, the mental
health impacts to children can be severe and long-lasting from being detained in a carceral
setting with inadequate healthcare, the inability to communicate in one’s native language, and in
certain instances, abuse and mistreatment. We demand that HHS include and prioritize in its
2022 environmental justice strategy plan the proper care of unaccompanied migrant children,
who comprise a vulnerable environmental justice population.
The first, most immediate step HHS should take in furthering a commitment to properly
caring for unaccompanied migrant children is to permanently shut down the detention camps at
Fort Bliss and Homestead—taking these camps out of active or “warm” status and terminating
all contracts for their operation.
In prioritizing unaccompanied migrant children in its environmental justice strategy plan,
we further demand that HHS develop a system for caring for migrant children in their custody
that prioritizes family reunification or releasing children to an appropriate sponsor in the
community, and only if those options are not possible, placing children in safe shelters that
prioritize the children’s developmental needs. HHS should seek and incorporate the guidance of
child and health experts and advocates in its plan developments. Moreover, recognized

13

international norms and rights of children should be centered in HHS’ policies, including the
rights enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. 75
We also request the opportunity to speak with HHS further about our concerns. Thank
you for your consideration of our comments, and if we can provide any further information or
input, please do not hesitate to contact us.
Sincerely,
Dominique Burkhardt
Senior Attorney
Earthjustice
4500 Biscayne Blvd., Ste. 201
Miami, FL 33137
dburkhardt@earthjustice.org

Melissa Legge
Associate Attorney
Earthjustice
48 Wall Street, 15th Floor
New York, NY 10005
mlegge@earthjustice.org

Nestor Perez
Associate Attorney
Earthjustice
4500 Biscayne Blvd., Ste. 201
Miami, FL 33137
nperez@earthjustice.org

Guadalupe De La Cruz
Program Director
American Friends Service Committee Florida
12000 Biscayne Blvd., Ste. 202
Miami, FL 33181
gdelacruz@afsc.org

Emma Shaw Crane, Ph.D.
Postdoctoral Fellow, Society of Fellows
Columbia University
ec2972@columbia.edu

Laura M. Esquivel
Vice President, Federal Policy and Advocacy
Hispanic Federation
1133 19th Street NW, Ste. 1035
Washington, DC 20036
lesquivel@hispanicfederation.org

Meryl Ranzer
Communications Lead
Respond Crisis Translation
meryl@respondcrisistranslation.org

See U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, Art. 3 (the best interests of the child must be a top priority); Art.
9-10 (upholding family relations and not being separated from one’s parents against one’s will); Art. 24 (right to
health); Art. 12 (right to voice); Art. 27 (right to adequate standard of living); Art. 28 (right to education); Art. 19,
32, 34-36 (right to freedom from any form of violence or exploitation); Art. 30 (right to Indigenous culture and
language); Art. 31 (right to recreation and play), Nov. 20, 1989, 1577 U.N.T.S. 3.

75

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Cynthia Vanderpool Garcia
Policy and Advocacy Coordinator
Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, Inc.
cynthia.vanderpoolgarcia@campesinasunite.org

Elena Rios, MD, MSPH, MACP
President and CEO
National Hispanic Medical Association
1920 L St. NW, Ste. 725
Washington, DC 20036
erios@nhmamd.org

Nezahualcoyotl Xiuhtecutli
General Coordinator
Farmworker Association of Florida
1264 Apopka Blvd.
Apopka, FL 32703
neza@floridafarmworkers.org

David N. Pellow
Director, Global Environmental Justice Project
University of California Santa Barbara
pellow@es.ucsb.edu

Wendy King
Executive Director
Immigrant Action Alliance
wendy@immigrantactionalliance.org

Paul Wright
Director
Human Rights Defense Center
P.O. Box 1151
Lake Worth, FL 33460
pwright@prisonlegalnews.org

Kimber J. Nicoletti-Martínez
MESA Community Empowerment and Violence
Prevention

Mark Magaña
President and CEO
GreenLatinos
1919 14th St., Ste. 700
Boulder, CO 80302
markmagana@greenlatinos.org

Jose Vargas
Executive Director
Labor Council for Latin American Advancement
(LCLAA)
815 Black Lives Matter Plaza NW
Washington, DC 20006
jvargas@lclaa.org

15

 

 

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