The Pentagon on Wednesday approved a request from the Department of Health and Human Services to temporarily house unaccompanied migrant children at two Texas military bases.
At Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, children will stay in a vacant dormitory, and at Fort Bliss, temporary housing will be constructed on an empty plot of land, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement.
HHS will have access to the locations “immediately” to prepare to receive the children and the agency “will maintain custody and responsibility for the well-being and support for these children at all times on the installation,” Kirby said.
The approval comes as an influx of unaccompanied migrant children continues at the southern border. Federal law requires children apprehended at the border to be turned over to HHS – the agency charged with their care – within 72 hours.
But amid constraints resulting from the coronavirus pandemic and the accelerated pace of arrivals, administration officials have been racing to find suitable shelter space for unaccompanied minors, resorting to convention centers and emergency intake sites to transfer them from US Border Patrol facilities, which are intended to process adults, not care for children.
The Border Patrol detained more than 11,000 unaccompanied migrant children between February 28 and March 20, according to preliminary government data reviewed by CNN, already eclipsing the number of minors apprehended in the full month of February.
As of Sunday, there were 822 children held in Border Patrol facilities, akin to jail-like conditions, for more than 10 days, according to documents obtained by CNN. The average time in custody for unaccompanied children continues to hover around 130 hours, exceeding the 72-hour legal limit.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said earlier this week that President Joe Biden does not think the conditions at Customs and Border Protection facilities are acceptable and that the administration is working on moving children out of those facilities as soon as possible.
“They are not meant for children, and that’s why he wants to open more shelters and increase and expedite processing at the border,” Psaki told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “The Lead” Monday. “And that’s an issue he’s focused on every single day.”
Kirby said Wednesday that the bases will begin housing unaccompanied migrant children “as soon as preparations are complete” and insisted the arrangements “will not negatively affect military training, operations, readiness, or other military requirements, including National Guard and Reserve readiness.”
CNN’s Caroline Kelly contributed to this report.