It’s the latest move by the administration to try to alleviate overcrowding in Border Patrol facilities and transfer unaccompanied minors who have been held in those facilities, akin to jail-like conditions, for prolonged periods.
The Department of Health and Human Services is partnering with the Defense Department to use property on Fort Bliss near El Paso, Texas, and Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio, with the potential capacity to accommodate up to 5,000 beds and around 350 beds, respectively.
On Wednesday, the Defense Department announced it had approved a request from HHS to temporarily house unaccompanied migrant children at two military sites in Texas.
“This support will be on a fully-reimbursable basis, and will not negatively affect military training, operations, readiness, or other military requirements, including National Guard and Reserve readiness. HHS will maintain custody and responsibility for the well-being and support for these children at all times on the installation,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement.
Over recent weeks, officials have raced to find shelter space for the growing number of migrant children arriving at the US-Mexico border. After children are taken into Border Patrol custody, they’re supposed to be turned over to HHS, which is charged with the care of migrant children.
HHS oversees an expansive shelter network where those children are placed until they can be relocated with sponsors, like parents or relatives, in the United States. But amid Covid-19 constraints and the accelerated pace of arrivals, the administration has struggled to move unaccompanied children out of border facilities designed for adults into HHS care within the 72-hour legal limit.
As of Tuesday, 4,962 children were in Customs and Border Protection facilities, according to government data, and 11,551 children in the custody of Health and Human Services.
Under mounting pressure to provide access to facilities, a group of White House officials and members of Congress toured a facility holding unaccompanied migrant children in Texas on Wednesday in the company of a news camera.
The Carrizo Springs, Texas, facility is an example of the types of shelters the administration has been scrambling to find to house children. These facilities, overseen by HHS, are equipped to provide medical services, sleeping quarters and other support.
“We have, and our office has been working, to build capacity but with Covid and the distancing related to Covid, that capacity was reduced by 40%. From the start, we were working under very constrained conditions,” Cindy Huang, director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a federal agency under HHS, told the pool reporter traveling with the delegation.
“This administration started on January 20 and from day one has been mobilizing an inter-agency solution,” she added.
The activation of the two military sites is part of that effort. The Biden administration is also leaning on the use of three convention centers – in Dallas, San Antonio and San Diego – and has set up an emergency intake site in Midland, Texas, and two other influx facilities in Pecos, Texas, and Carrizo Springs.