By Ellen Mitchell, THE HILL – Reprinted with Permission
The administration of US President Donald Trump has asked the Department of Defense (DOD) to prepare to house up to 5,000 unaccompanied migrant children amid what it calls a mounting “crisis” at the US-Mexico border, the Pentagon said Thursday.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), “requested DOD support to identify space to house up to 5,000 unaccompanied alien children on DOD installations, if needed, through September 30, 2019,” said Pentagon spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Jamie Davis.
“DOD will work with the military services to identify potential locations for such support, and will work with HHS to assess any DOD facilities or suitable DOD land for potential use to provide temporary shelter for unaccompanied alien children,” he said.
The request for beds is preventative–they will not definitely be used.
But it comes amid a surge in the number of families and unaccompanied children crossing the US border from Mexico illegally, most of them fleeing poverty and violence in Central America. Most request asylum.
According to the Customs and Border Protection Agency (CBP), the number of minors apprehended after entering the country illegally without family in February hit 6,825, up from 5,119 in January and 4,968 in October.
CBP hands the children over to HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, which seeks to place them with relatives or other families in the United States while their requests to remain in the country are processed, which can take two years. At times last year they had more than 15,000 such children in their care at one time.
CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said on Tuesday that illegal immigration in February surged to the highest level in years, with 76,000 people stopped or apprehended, and was straining government facilities.
“We are currently facing a humanitarian and national security crisis along our southwest border,” he said.
“The vast increases in families and children coming across our border, in larger groups and in more remote areas, presents a unique challenge to our operations and facilities, and those of our partners.”
On Wednesday (March 6) Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said they were expecting the numbers to grow in the coming months.
Nielsen though said in many cases the children were being used as “pawns” to get into our country, and even “recycled” by smuggling rings to help multiple groups cross the border and get a foothold on US soil.
She said she sympathized with the migrants but insisted that, as Trump formally declared last month, “It is an emergency.” Using military bases to house minors is not unprecedented. The Obama administration in 2014 used Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas; Naval Base Ventura County in Southern California; and Fort Sill in Oklahoma to house roughly 7,500 unaccompanied minors from Central America. Those shelters closed after four months.
Should Pentagon leaders agree to open DOD facilities to unaccompanied migrant children, they would be overseen by HHS personnel.
The military is already involved in implementing President Trump’s immigration policy, with about 6,000 troops currently deployed on the U.S.-Mexico border to string razor wire and provide support to Department of Homeland Security personnel.
In addition, the administration is looking to move about $6.1 billion from Pentagon accounts, including $2.5 billion from counter- drug programs and $3.6 billion in military construction funds, to build the president’s long promised border wall.