HOMESTEAD, Fla. — The one guy who should have some answers for activists protesting what they see as “imprisonment” of unaccompanied alien children, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden passed up a chance to join most of the other 2020 presidential hopefuls in making the pilgrimage to an emergency shelter for youths in South Florida.
The activists gathered outside the compound’s chain-link fence, some of whom have been showing up nearly every day for more than three months, say President Trump deserves the lion’s share of the blame but former President Barack Obama and his right-hand man, Mr. Biden, are also responsible for the mess.
“Biden can’t escape the fact that he was part of the Obama administration and the Obama administration did start this,” said Patrick Goggins, who made an hourlong drive from Hollywood, Florida, to “bear witness to what I think is a crime against humanity.”
“He probably should explain how this started and what their thinking was,” Mr. Googins said of Mr. Biden. “I haven’t heard anything in which he explained that.”
The Obama administration converted the former Jobs Corps education and training center in Homestead into an emergency shelter for unaccompanied alien children in June 2016. More than 8,500 children passed in and out of the gates by April 2017, when the shelter ceased operations because of a reduction in the influx of unaccompanied alien children, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
The department oversees care for illegal immigrants younger than 18 who have no legal guardians in the United States and are held in federal custody.
Following the policy established by Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden, the Trump administration reactivated the Homestead shelter in March 2018 in response to a dramatic spike in the number of illegal immigrant children crossing the border alone.
It’s another case of Mr. Biden’s long history in politics haunting him since he dove into the crowded Democratic race in late April.
His past caught up with him again in the first presidential debate in Miami last week when Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California scolded him for his opposition to busing to desegregate schools in the 1970s.
Mr. Biden stumbled while trying to defend himself in the exchange, which added to lingering questions about the 76-year-old’s ability to shake off political rust and speak to the future.
“All of the candidates have to come face to face with their record, and for the vice president, in particular, his past record clearly does not mesh with the civil rights, social justice and racial justice direction that the country is in right now,” Nina Turner, national co-chair of Sen. Bernard Sanders’ presidential campaign, told The Washington Times.
Mr. Sanders visited the protest and toured the shelter last week while he was in Florida.
The intense focus on immigration has made matters worse for Mr. Biden by rekindling some of the left wing’s lingering frustration with how the Obama administration handled immigration.
That includes its record on deportations and the decision to open the Homestead facility for children ages 13 to 17 who were stuck in the nation’s illegal immigration quagmire.
In the Miami debate, Mr. Biden said Mr. Obama “did a heck of a job” on immigration but added that he now supports granting benefits denied to illegal immigrants during the Obama years, including government health care benefits.
For Democrats and liberal activists, the Homestead shelter, which is privately run, stands as an ugly symbol of what is wrong with the nation’s immigration system.
Perched atop stepladders, activists in Homestead waved heart-shaped signs and shouted words of encouragement in Spanish over a chain-link fence when they caught a glimpse of the youngsters moving around the dirt yard.
“The guards have told the kids that, or at least that is what we’ve heard, is that we are here to deport them, and so we started making those red hearts and waving them, and we say, ‘Los creemos, we love you,’ and, “Estamos con ustedes, we are with you,’” said Kenneth Barnes, who traveled from New Hampshire to show his support for the minors.
“Some of the kids, they actually come around the corner, they burst into big smiles, they wave their hats, they blow us kisses,” Mr. Barnes said. “It is quite amazing. While it feels good for us witnesses, what really warms my heart is that these kids see people that actually care about them, who wants them to have a life, to have a childhood and be free, and welcome them to this country instead of the people they have been dealing with so far, which is not that.”
HHS maintains that the children are receiving good care, including education, counseling and medical services, while the government vets relatives and foster families to take custody of them.
Since the Homestead shelter reopened in March 2018, more than 13,300 children have stayed and 10,800 have been discharged to sponsors. A recent HHS count showed roughly 2,450 children residing at the facility.
Children discharged from the Homestead facility in a recent 30-day period had been there an average 36 days, the agency said.
Mr. Barnes said he and his friends have been “bird dogging” the candidates on the issue of immigration during their campaign swings through New Hampshire and urging them to visit Homestead.
For most of the 2020 presidential contenders, the backdrop has proved politically irresistible, offering them a chance to rail against Mr. Trump and show solidarity with voters they hope to win over in the primary race.
Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida, said skipping a stop at Homestead was problematic.
“For Democrats at this debate, they are in Florida; it is a must-see. It is like going to the Vatican and kissing the pope’s ring,” he said. “If you don’t go, people are going to say, ‘Why didn’t you go?’”
When Ms. Harris visited, she told the protesters that every American is on trial for what goes on in the shelter.
“I strongly believe that you should judge a society based on how it treats its children. They are children, and we are not treating them well at all,” she said.
“You and I are paying for that place,” Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, told the crowd. “What is being done in that building is being done in our name and with our money, and it is wrong. We will say no more to prisons for children. Never again.”
Mr. Biden, though, was a no-show, and his campaign didn’t respond to inquiries about why he didn’t go.
The protesters said that they welcomed visits from the other presidential contenders and were disappointed that Mr. Biden didn’t make the trip.
Carlos Delpozo, 57, said he would “absolutely” like to hear more from Mr. Biden on the subject.
“The administration dropped the ball, and I know Obama dropped the ball to begin with, and now it has just gotten worse,” Mr. Delpozo said.