Military assets would not be used to transport young immigrant detainees to Washington state if Joint Base Lewis-McChord is selected as a temporary holding facility for a surge of Central American children who have been held at the U.S.-Mexico border, a Defense Department spokesman said.
A team from the Department of Health and Human Services has visited JBLM to assess whether the South Sound installation should be one of several military bases that temporarily house minors from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
“It’s not a done deal yet,” said Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Thomas Crosson.
But if detainees are sent to JBLM, he said military personnel would not be involved in their transportation or care. Health and Human Services would hire contractors for those jobs and would reimburse the Defense Department for expenses such as utilities, he said.
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U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, D-Olympia, said he has been given similar assurances.
“I have inquired and have been assured that as this process moves forward, the mission of our service members on JBLM will not be hindered,” said Heck, whose district includes JBLM.
Health and Human Services is considering JBLM because the Defense Department included it on a list of military installations with available space to help the government handle the rush of Central American children that has overwhelmed facilities on the border.
“Once all relevant information about the appropriateness of the facility has been gathered and analyzed, a final decision will be announced by HHS,” Health and Human Services spokesman Kenneth Wolfe said.
So far, about 2,000 minors are being housed at military installations in California, Oklahoma and Texas. Each of the three bases has a 120-day agreement to serve as a host site. Detainees spend an average of 35 days at the holding facilities before being placed with a relative or sponsor in the U.S. for the duration of the immigration process, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
Crosson said Health and Human Services has not yet asked to extend any of the three agreements at the military bases. If JBLM becomes a shelter site, it also would have a 120-day agreement, Crosson said.
The number of unaccompanied minors attempting to cross the border has more than doubled over the past year. About 52,000 have crossed this federal fiscal year.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told a House Committee Tuesday that his agency is stepping up efforts to dissuade Central American parents from sending their children on treks to reach the United States; it’s also increasing shelter space and stepping up efforts to dismantle smuggling networks.
“This is a humanitarian issue as much as it is a matter of border security,” Johnson said. “We are talking about large numbers of children, without their parents, who have arrived at our border hungry, thirsty, exhausted, scared and vulnerable. How we treat the children, in particular, is a reflection of our laws and our values.”