Federal officials told Pierce County leaders Wednesday that local government resources will not be used to care for hundreds of young, undocumented immigrants who could be sheltered at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
It’s still unclear when or if the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will carry out a proposal to temporarily house Central American children in available space at the South Sound military base.
HHS officials hosted the conference call to answer local questions about the proposal, which was first reported by The News Tribune three weeks ago.
Representatives from Pierce County communities have expressed concerns that the unaccompanied minors might overwhelm local schools, draw on social services, carry viruses or distract from the mission of military units at Lewis-McChord.
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They heard assurances that the children:
• Would not attend public schools at Lewis-McChord.
• Would be cared for by contractors hired to provide for their health and security needs.
• Would be screened for illnesses before reaching JBLM.
Local officials also were told that military service members would have no responsibility in caring for the sheltered immigrants.
Lakewood city spokesman Brent Champaco, who listened in on the call, said the federal officials settled the concerns that Lakewood Mayor Don Anderson had expressed in a letter to HHS last month.
“Our concerns regarding the health of these teens, the public safety of these teens as well as the schooling of these teens would be handled by the HHS Office of Refugee Settlement. There is no plan to house or school these children in our community,” Champaco said.
HHS estimates that as many 90,000 unaccompanied minors might try to cross the Southwest border this year. Most are from Central American nations wracked with gang-related violence.
By law, HHS must house the children until they can be connected with relatives or sponsors who will care for them while they go through the federal immigration process. President Obama has asked Congress to allocate $3.7 billion to step up programs that would address the crisis.
HHS has contracts with three other military bases to shelter immigrants. JBLM would operate under the same model if selected as a fourth shelter site. HHS is looking at JBLM to house about 600 detainees.
Rep. Denny Heck, D-Olympia, organized the call between HHS and city officials.
“If JBLM is chosen, government services on the municipal level will not be responsible for providing resources and HHS will take care of the children at this site temporarily while each case is evaluated,” Heck said after the meeting.