Lakewood leaders worried about potential for JBLM to house immigrant children

Lakewood Mayor Don Anderson is raising concerns to U.S. Rep. Denny Heck and the regional director for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services about the possibility that Joint Base Lewis-McChord could house up to 600 immigrant children from Central America.

An announcement is pending on whether empty barracks on base have been approved to house the children. Lakewood officials say they’ve heard nothing from the federal agencies involved in the children’s care about the potential impact their relocation could have on neighboring cities.

“Primarily we see what’s happening in other parts of the country and we would like to know what’s happening here,” Lakewood City Manager John Caulfield said Wednesday about why the city sent letters to Heck, an Olympia Democrat, and Susan Johnson, the regional director for Health and Human Services based in Seattle.

The city isn’t taking a political position about the relocation of the children from the Mexican border where they are arriving by the thousands, it just wants to know what is going on, Caulfield said.

“As the nearest neighbor to the base, the city is impacted by activities there. We are unable to fully evaluate the impact of this program without knowing how many people will be coming, what measures will be taken to assess and provide for their special needs, how long they will stay, what access they will have to surrounding communities,” Anderson wrote in his letter to Johnson. “Among our concerns are community health, schools, social services and law enforcement impact on our city as well as the ability of JBLM to focus on its primary mission.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is taking the lead on coordinating care of the children, while Health and Human Services is addressing the children’s immediate needs.

Three temporary facilities have opened on military installations to handle the overflow of children including Joint Base San Antonia Lacklund, Naval Base Ventura County-Port Hueneme and Fort Sill in Oklahoma. The bases will remain open to the children for 120 days. If JBLM is approved as a temporary site it also would be open 120 days.

The average stay of children in the facility is less than 35 days, according to information from the Health and Human Services website. The website also states the impact on the local community is minimal because HHS pays for and provides all the services the children need through a network of grantees. That includes feeding the children and providing clothes, giving them access to education and providing medical screenings.

“All activities, including outdoor recreation time, take place on the grounds of the temporary facilities. Children do not attend local schools,” the website states.

In the letters to Heck and Johnson, Anderson cited concern about the possibility of spreading communicable diseases if the children are brought to JBLM.

Children are screened for tuberculosis and given vaccinations to protect against communicable diseases once in the care of the federal government, according to the HHS information.

“If children are determined to have any communicable disease or have been exposed to a communicable disease, they are placed in a program or facility that has the capacity to quarantine. If they have mental health problems, they are similarly placed in a specialized facility to meet their needs and not in a temporary shelter,” the HHS website states.

Within HHS, the Office of Refugee Resettlement is charged with providing care for the children. The division has signed a contract with Catholic Community Services to help house the children in licensed care facilities in Pierce and Thurston counties, including foster homes, according to Seattle immigration attorney Liya Djamilova. Djamilova serves on the Northwest Detention Center Roundtable, a nonprofit that works with detainees and their families and raises awareness about the NWDC facility in Tacoma.

According to the Administration for Children and Families, a division of HHS, the majority of the children in the federal unaccompanied alien children program are cared for through a network of state-licensed, federally funded care providers. They also help unite the children with family members already in the United States or other sponsors who care for them.

Despite the federal agencies involved in the children’s relocation posting answers to common questions online, that information has not been communicated to the communities that could be affected the most, Caulfield said. Instead city leaders are left trying to guess what is occurring.

“We're hearing these rumblings and these rumors,” Caulfield said. “Right now quite frankly we feel like we’re out in the cold on this.”

A tentative briefing has been scheduled for Monday for local officials to meet with HHS regional staff to answer some of the questions, he said.

“We just hope that the fed government will fully disclose to use what's going to happen over there and the impact to the community, and what they can do to help us so we can help them,” Caulfield said.

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