HOMESTEAD, Florida — “See the kids! See the kids!”
Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, who came to the Homestead detention facility for child immigrants Friday, was shouted at by protesters as his car drove away — begging him to come to a cluster of ladders in order to see the children detained beyond the fence, as other candidates had.
“I’m very disappointed,” said Alessandra Mondolfi, an activist who had screamed into Buttigieg’s black SUV, after Buttigieg left. “Because this is about them. This isn’t a press conference. This is about them.”
When a phalanx of Democratic candidates visited Homestead Friday, Buttigieg was the only one who did not stop to climb the ladders erected by the facility’s fence, frustrating protesters who had come to hold up signs and giant cardboard hearts in hopes of reassuring the children detained inside.
“Was that Mayor Pete who didn’t see the kids?” one woman asked, running up to Mondolfi. She made a sound of frustration as Buttigieg’s car disappeared down the road.
Buttigieg’s campaign would not comment to BuzzFeed News on why he left before seeing the children at the ladders. He did an extended interview from Homestead with CNN after the candidates were denied entrance into the facility, and appeared on the television show The View after leaving.
Buttigieg’s outreach on issues affecting the Latinx community has to this point been something of a mixed bag. In California last month, he prioritized fundraisers over spending more time with Latinx activists at the state Democratic Party’s convention. He did, however, visit Fresno while out West, a heavily Latinx part of the state often overlooked during presidential campaigns.
Protesters who stood for hours on the ladders outside the facility said that they felt the chance to see children inside the detention center’s broad cement yard was the most important piece of visiting Homestead.
“It was very disappointing,” said Ken Barnes, a New Hampshire resident who had come to Florida several times before to protest the facility and family separation.
“Seeing with your own eyes what it’s like for these kids, it’s one thing to read about it in the newspapers, it’s one thing to talk about it in the abstract, but you see these kids and you think of your own kids, kids you know and love. Our country treats them like little criminals.”
On The View, Buttigieg spoke about how he and the other Democrats had been denied entry to the facility by officials. “We only got as far as the waiting room and they told us that the higher-ups wouldn’t let them show us the actual conditions that these kids are living in. It’s got to end. This is not our country.”
Other presidential candidates who have come to Homestead after or before their debates this week have made a point of going to the ladders — Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders stood on the ladder, as did former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, and others.
On Friday, Sens. Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand, former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, and former housing secretary Julián Castro all came to the ladders to try to see the children inside the facility. As they stood, some holding binoculars, protesters explained the conditions they had been observing inside for weeks, including children who appeared far younger than the center’s minimum age.
When Castro remarked on the color of the children’s baseball hats, a bright “prison orange,” he was told that the children had at first not had anything to shield their heads from the Florida sun.
Whenever a group of children appeared, the protesters waved signs and hearts, shouting “We love you” in Spanish: “Nos queremos.”
“Say something,” one woman told Castro.
“I don’t think they can hear me,” Castro, who was visibly emotional as he watched the children in the courtyard, said hesitantly. But the protesters assured him the children could.
Castro shouted to them in Spanish. “Estamos aquí para ustedes. No están solos,” he said. We’re here for you. You’re not alone.