The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has suspended its effort to temporarily house refugee children from Central America on military bases. The decision marks the end of a proposal, for now, to bring about 600 minors to a barracks building at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
But local, regional and federal officials have said the situation is “fluid” and “substantial uncertainty” remains about the future exodus of unaccompanied minors across the southern U.S. border.
In an email sent Tuesday to the City of Lakewood, the largest community near JBLM, the Seattle region director of HHS said temporary shelters could yet be needed on a limited basis.
“The number of unaccompanied children crossing the border is still too high and thousands of children are still in HHS custody,” said regional director Susan Johnson. “We will continue to monitor the situation closely in order to make the best decisions about the resources available to take care of the children.”
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Tuesday’s announcement came as HHS said it’s closing three temporary shelters at military bases in Oklahoma, California and Texas. They’ve consistently housed about 7,700 unoccupied immigrant children since opening in May and June, mostly from Central American nations affected by gang-related violence.
“Since the beginning of July, we have begun to see some initial signs of progress along our Southwest border, although it is too early to tell whether these trends will be sustained over time,” said Kenneth Wolfe, spokesman for HHS Administration for Children and Families, in an email Tuesday.
Standard shelters – which are more cost effective than temporary ones, like what had been proposed at JBLM – have also seen increased capacity.
By law, HHS must house the children apprehended at the border 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.
The three temporary shelters set to close have seen an influx of more than 57,000 unaccompanied minors who have crossed the southern border since October, double the number of children who sought refuge last year.
HHS had initially estimated that as many 90,000 unaccompanied minors might try to cross the Southwest border this year.
Wolfe said the number of those children apprehended and in Customs and Border Protection custody has fallen. Simultaneously, the number of children his agency has released to appropriate sponsors has increased.
The News Tribune first reported in June the effort to secure facilities for temporary shelter at JBLM. HHS was looking at the base south of Tacoma to house about 600 detainees.
After local jurisdictions raised concerns, government officials confirmed that the shelters wouldn’t require military or local resources.
City of Lakewood leaders say HHS made the right decision not to locate immigrant children at JBLM.
In a prepared statement, City Council member Jason Whalen said the situation was a “complicated humanitarian effort that requires critical thinking.”
At the end of June, Lakewood Mayor Don Anderson sent a letter to federal officials citing concerns about bringing the children to JBLM. As a result of the letters, city leaders met with officials from HHS and the Office of Refugee Resettlement in July to discuss the situation.
"They took our concerns and made, what in our opinion, was the right decision regarding the use of JBLM’s facilities for this issue,” Whalen said in the statement.
U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, D-Olympia, said in a statement Tuesday that he trusts “HHS to make the right decisions about what facilities are best for the refugee children, but this situation will not simply go away because the children are not staying in our district.”
Heck said he supports “common-sense, comprehensive immigration reform,” including the temporary refugee shelters for immigrant children.
The Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.