The 15-year-old Honduran girl couldn’t take it anymore. She had been held in the Florida detention facility for three weeks, and it felt like a prison.
So when she saw an opportunity to escape during a trip to the doctor’s office, she ran.
That’s when Frank Gonzalez saw her.
“She came running in from the streets,” said the owner of Gonzalez Auto Center in Homestead, Fla. “She was crying.”
The girl ran into his shop and hid in a corner behind a large shelf full of tools. It was a busy morning at the large auto shop that operates 14 bays. But she stayed there, crying, for more than an hour on Friday morning, refusing to move.
“We were giving her water and some food, but she stayed in that corner the whole time,” said Elvis Lopez, a mechanic at the shop. “She seemed pretty scared. She kept saying she didn’t want to go back.”
Nobody knew what to do with the frightened teen, who was being held at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children, about five miles from the auto shop. The Homestead shelter houses an estimated 1,200 immigrant youths, making it the second-largest detention center for migrant children in the country.
The South Florida facility, near the Homestead Air Reserve Base, has been a target of protests over the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy for illegal immigration at the southern U.S. border, which led to the separation of at least 2,500 children from their parents. The detention center also houses children who arrived at the border without parents.
Police did not release the name of the girl who fled.
“They were transporting the child to an eye exam, and when they opened the door and started walking in, she just took off on them,” Homestead police spokesman Fernando Morales said. The eye doctor’s office is near the auto shop, he noted, and just a quarter mile from the police department.
While others got back to work at the auto shop, Lopez called his sister and asked her to talk to the girl to try to calm her down.
His sister, Bertha Lopez, said the girl was distraught.
“She was very afraid. She said she was from Honduras, and she has no family,” Bertha Lopez said. “I told her she would be safe, and we would try to help her.”
Bertha Lopez called Nora Sandigo, head of a local nonprofit organization that helps immigrant families navigate the legal system. Lopez told the girl that they would get her a lawyer if she needed one. But the girl was inconsolable.
“She didn’t feel confident that anybody could help,” Lopez said.
Before Sandigo could get there, police vans began circling the shop’s parking lot. Gonzalez said nobody from the shop called the police, but he eventually flagged down an officer and pointed to where the girl had hidden.
“It broke my heart to see the girl panicked and scared, not knowing where her father or mother was,” Gonzalez said.
Lopez, who was still on the phone with her brother when the police arrived, said she heard the commotion in the background.
“I could hear her screaming and crying and begging not to go back,” Lopez said.
Gonzalez said the Homestead police spoke to the girl in Spanish and treated her girl gently, but she was afraid.
“She said, ‘Please don’t punish me, don’t touch me, don’t hold my hand,’” he said. “They put handcuffs on her, but not like a criminal, like a human being.”
Police say the girl was returned to the detention center without incident.
Sandigo, the immigrant advocate, arrived at the auto shop soon after the girl was recaptured and said she called 911 to try to talk to somebody and let them know she could help.
“She was desperate to be safe, but she didn’t want to go back to that place,” Sandigo said. “She said she wanted her freedom, and her family. She has nobody here.”
Mark Weber, deputy assistant secretary for public affairs for human services at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the custody of unaccompanied minors, said he couldn’t comment on the escape. According to HHS, between October and May, 109 children left detention centers “without permission.” The department says “most or all” returned to detention.
Gonzalez said he’s glad he told the officers where to find the girl.
“They were going around and around, they knew she was close by,” he said. “It’s safer for her in detention than out on the streets with no family. It was a hard decision.”
Gonzalez, who came to the United States from Cuba in 1971 with his family, said he supports the Trump administration’s tough stance on border security but disagrees with separating families.
“People who want to come here, and work for the American Dream, they should get papers and follow the rules,” Gonzalez said. “But it breaks my heart to see mothers and fathers divided from their children. Families should be together all the time.”
Still, he says he supports Trump’s general immigration policy, adding, “Let’s make America great again.”