The Trump administration is running out of space to house migrant children who arrive at the southern border without a parent or legal guardian, prompting the Health and Human Services Department to look elsewhere for assistance.
This week, HHS, which is tasked with caring for unaccompanied migrant children, said that it will use facilities at Fort Sill Army Base in Oklahoma to house minors. The base, which once held an internment camp for Japanese Americans – was previously used during the Obama administration for migrant children as well.
The department is also opening a temporary shelter in Carrizo Springs, Texas.
The opening of additional facilities to shelter children is indicative of the situation at the US-Mexico border, where migrants continue to cross and turn themselves in to the US Border Patrol in large numbers. The sheer volume of child arrivals has strained HHS resources and pushed them near capacity, an agency spokesperson said.
The recent swell of migrants has prompted the need for additional facilities again. In May, the Border Patrol apprehended nearly 133,000 migrants, according to Customs and Border Protection data, including more than 11,000 unaccompanied children.
After being apprehended by the Border Patrol, unaccompanied minors are generally transferred to HHS custody within 72 hours. HHS then is tasked with finding a sponsor in the United States for the children, meaning, for example, an immediate family member or relative. The average length of stay is 48 days.
Currently, there are around 13,200 unaccompanied children in HHS custody, the majority of whom are male teenagers.
As it has done in the past, HHS turned to the Pentagon for help, asking for space of up to 5,000 unaccompanied children, the spokesperson said. HHS has said that using Army facilities are a last resort, but the decision to make the ask has received pushback from immigrant advocate groups.
“This type of outright cruelty against children, in a military facility once used to perpetrate a grave injustice, no less, tells the world we are not the proud and free nation we once purported to be,” said Bishop Garrison, director of national security outreach at Human Rights First, in a statement, referring to the use of Fort Sill.
In the next few weeks, some children will begin arriving at Fort Sill and Carrizo Springs, as they await to be placed with a sponsor, like a relative, in the United States. HHS currently operates around 168 facilities and programs nationwide.
The placement of children who have arrived in the US without a parent or legal guardian at army bases is not unusual. The Obama administration also relied on them – including Fort Sill in 2014 – to shelter children amid increases in border crossings.
As of April 30, nearly 41,000 children have been sent to HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement in fiscal year 2019, putting it on track to “care for the largest number of (unaccompanied children) in the program’s history,” the office says. Just over 59,000 children were referred to the agency in fiscal year 2016.
Earlier this month, HHS, which already has an influx shelter open in Homestead, Florida, was reviewing the possibility of sending unaccompanied migrant children to Fort Benning in Georgia. HHS announced this week that Fort Benning would not be used, nor will Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana.
Fort Sill will shelter around 1,400 unaccompanied migrant children. Like Carrizo Springs, which will accommodate around 1,600, children will be housed in buildings, while semi-permanent soft-sided structures will be used for “support operations,” according to the department.
In an announcement, HHS said it’s assessing Santa Teresa Land Port of Entry facility in Santa Teresa, New Mexico, to potentially house children “if there is an urgent need for additional shelter space.”
The increasing number of children being referred to HHS care comes as the department is on the brink of running out of funds.
Last week, the Office of Refugee Resettlement began to function as if it were in a government shutdown, according to Evelyn Stauffer, spokeswoman for the HHS Administration for Children and Families.
As a result, the office had to cut down or scale back education services, legal services, and other activities at some shelters.
The White House has requested $4.5 billion for the border, which would also included funding for HHS. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell confirmed this week that the Senate will try to pass the emergency spending bill to address the burgeoning migrant crisis at the southern border.
“A week from Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Committee is going to mark up a bill to deal with crisis at the border, the humanitarian crisis at the border,” McConnell said at a news conference where he promised quick floor action once the bill clears committee.