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Correction: Southwest Key will provide transportation services for immigrant youth and will not run day-to-day operations as previously reported. CHSi will run daily operations.
Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
Faced with a wave of youngsters illegally crossing the U.S. border and not enough room to house them, the federal government plans to temporarily hold 400 children at a time in an unused wing of Holloman Air Force Base.
Beginning this month, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said it may send unaccompanied migrant youths from Central America to Holloman as beds at permanent shelters run out.
The children are detained only as long as it takes to release them to a sponsor in the United States – usually a parent or family member, according to HHS spokeswoman Andrea Helling.
Young people from the violence-plagued Northern Triangle of Central America – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – began crossing the border illegally last fall in droves, much as they did in the summer of 2014. Many request asylum and, upon crossing the border, are ushered into an immigration justice system where courts are slogging through a growing backlog of cases.
Border Patrol apprehended more than 17,300 unaccompanied minors at the Southwest border between October and December, up from nearly 8,000 during the three-month period in 2014. The vast majority are from Central America. About 1,000 of those apprehended were picked up in the Border Patrol sector that includes New Mexico – nearly triple the number caught over the same period a year earlier.
Mexican youths can be deported immediately through an administrative process. But U.S. law requires that unaccompanied Central American youths be taken in by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is tasked with finding a guardian who will commit to delivering the child to immigration hearings, said Kristin Love, an attorney and border civil rights fellow with the ACLU of New Mexico.
“In 2014 we did not have enough beds ready to take them,” Helling said. “In 2015, we were monitoring the numbers very carefully so that didn’t happen again.”
The department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement maintains a network of 7,900 beds used to house immigrant minors and families, Helling said. As the number of unaccompanied minors began to creep up last year, HHS began looking to expand its network and now has 8,400 beds available, she said.
The department secured beds at several Texas summer camps, but state law mandates that such facilities can hold kids 21 days at a time. HHS reviewed several Department of Defense installations and settled on Holloman, which under the current contract could hold youths over the next six months.
Helling said the children spend an average of 32 days in the government’s care.
Once released to their families, the youngsters could wait years to have their day in court.
There were nearly half a million deportation cases pending in the nation’s immigration courts in August 2015, according to U.S. Justice Department data compiled by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
The average wait time for individuals with a pending case has reached an all-time high of 635 days, according to the TRAC report. That’s the average time individuals have already waited for their case to be heard, not how much longer they may still wait before seeing a judge, TRAC said.
Alamogordo Mayor Susie Galea said she has been briefed on the plans by a regional HHS director. She described her community as a “charitable” one but said she has also fielded concerns about whether the children housed at Holloman – who may range in age from 12 to 17 – would attend public schools or need other services.
They will not, she said.
“They will be in the federal facility, and the services they receive will be completely self-contained,” she said. “There will be no interface between Holloman Air Force members or children or spouses with any of the unaccompanied minors.”
Helling confirmed that account and said four contractors will provide services at the facility. Southwest Key, a nonprofit that already runs more than 20 immigrant youth shelters for the U.S. government around the country, will run day-to-day operations.
Some local immigration attorneys have said they are concerned about the youngsters’ access to legal and other aid.
Helling said the Office of Refugee Resettlement “will work with stakeholders and advocates to arrange site visits and services as appropriate, following Department of Defense base requirements for visitors.”
The ACLU’s Love said, “I think one of our biggest concerns is that a temporary facility, especially on a military base, is far from the social and legal resources that child refugees need.
“A lot of the children have endured some of the most horrific forms of trauma you can imagine,” she said. “To be put into a fairly restrictive setting is not an appropriate setting for a child.”
Immigrant advocates say many of the youths streaming over the border are fleeing violence in their home countries.
Homicides more than doubled over two years in El Salvador, surging to 6,657 in 2015 from 2,499 in 2013 – in a country of roughly 6 million people – thanks to the government’s decision to end a truce and fight two powerful criminal gangs head-on, according to the online daily El Faro. In Honduras, the murder rate remains among the highest in the world.
HHS is also looking at using Department of Defense facilities in California and North Dakota, should flows of unaccompanied minors over the border continue.
“We provided HHS with a list of potential bases they could use based on our criteria,” said Lt. Col. Tom Crosson, a spokesman for the Department of Defense. “There could be no detriment to the mission. The facilities have to be vacant and have no projected use.”
For planning purposes, Helling said, HHS assumes an average daily cost of $223 for a permanent bed funded for a year. That pays for not only food, clothing and shelter, but also for a staff member for every eight children; caseworkers who search for the children’s guardians; as well as educational materials, recreation and activities.
But the cost of temporary shelter capacity is higher, she said, because of the need to develop facilities and hire staff quickly. She said HHS reimburses the Defense Department for use of its facilities.
The government is preparing for the flows to continue. Helling said that in addition to the 8,400 beds available now, HHS has another 800 beds in Florida that will come available in February and is getting 1,000 beds in Denver ready for April.