Lawrence woman journeys 1,500 miles to show detained migrant kids someone cares

photo by: Contributed photo

Lawrence resident Bonnie Uffman returned March 31, 2019, from 10 days witnessing outside the Homestead Migrant Child Detention Facility in South Florida. In this photo, she is standing on a ladder waving to the children detained behind the 10-foot fence.

It was so important to a Lawrence woman to let migrant teens behind the fence of a detention center know someone cares about them that she drove for 24 hours to stand on a ladder and wave to them.

The woman, Bonnie Uffman, a semiretired licensed clinical psychotherapist, just returned from 10 days witnessing outside the Homestead Migrant Child Detention Facility next to the Homestead Air Reserve Base in South Florida.

From the vantage point of a ladder, Uffman caught glimpses of the children, ages 13 to 17, on the other side of the fence, about 25 feet away. They were being detained at Homestead after attempting to cross the southern border of the U.S. as unaccompanied minors.

“They are detained because they are traveling without a biological parent,” Uffman said. “But many are traveling with an older brother or sister or aunt or uncle or neighbor.”

When she waved to the kids on the other side of the fence, they would wave back. Other times she held a sign written in Spanish that said “We see you, we care about you.”

“This is for the children to see that there is someone there who is supportive, who cares about them,” Uffman said. “We also do it for the people outside the fence, letting them know there is something happening here and what do they think about it?”

Most people, even those who live in the area, are surprised that the detention center, which is run by the for-profit corporation Caliburn, exists, she said.

This was her second trip to Homestead in two months. On an average day, anywhere from three to 17 people are witnessing. Now that she is home, she feels exhausted and emotionally drained, but in her heart she wants to be back there.

She said she had been told that about 1,700 children were being detained at the facility.

“It’s hard to know because everything is secretive,” she said. “It’s a highly guarded facility.”

She could only catch glimpses of what was going on from the ladder. She could see construction taking place and said she had heard that the center was expanding to house up to 3,000.

The Journal-World could not verify the number of current detainees or plans for expansion.

photo by: Contributed photo

Bonnie Uffman’s view of the detention center from standing on a ladder. When the detained youth play soccer in the foreground they wave to the witnesses, Uffman said.

“You would think they would decrease it as they process them through and get them to their families,” she said.

She said the facility was also increasing the height of the 10-foot tall chain-link fence, which is covered with thick green plastic. That would keep the witnesses from being able to see over the fence.

What they see now are boys playing soccer.

“They seemed to be enjoying themselves and they seem to enjoy our waving at them. They go from building to building in single file,” she said. When they did spot the girls, they seemed hesitant about waving.

“There was a concern at first that there may be repercussions for them waving, but it appears there is not or they wouldn’t be so enthusiastic about it,” she said.

Uffman said a congressional delegation and news reporters have gone inside for tours, but they are carefully orchestrated and don’t show the whole facility.

Some of the same people witnessing at Homestead had been at Tornillo, the largest tent camp for unaccompanied migrant children, about 20 miles southeast of El Paso, Texas. That detention center was shut down after it came under fire in January, Uffman said.

An advocate for those in need, Uffman served in Venezuela in the Peace Corps when she was first out of college.

She feels she is part of a movement of like-minded people trying to protect human rights. She learned about Homestead from advocacy groups that she follows on Facebook and through the news, she said.

Uffman said the witnesses often wonder what the detained children think about them. One of the witnesses at Homestead told her something that a youth at Tornillo had told him. The youth, after he got out of Tornillo, told the man that he had been deeply depressed inside and that it had helped to know there were people outside whom he could see holding signs.

“That makes it worth it,” Uffman said. For her, the toughest part is knowing there are vulnerable, lonely kids confined behind a fence.

“And all we can do is wave,” she said.


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