Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has offered to house an additional 5,000 children caught illegally crossing into the U.S. at military bases despite rising opposition in Congress to opening up military facilities to unaccompanied children from Central America, Pentagon officials said Wednesday.
Hagel has also moved to extend the leases at three bases where about 2,500 border kids are currently being housed while the federal government seeks to determine their status, said Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman.
Unaccompanied children are presently being housed at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, Lackland Air Force Base in Texas and Naval Base Ventura in California, but the bases for housing the additional 5,000 children have yet to be determined, Warren said.
Under lease arrangements with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Defense Department offered up an empty or excess building and HHS provides for the care and feeding of the children. The current leases at Sill, Lackland and Ventura are for 120 days and would expire in October without the extension proposed by Hagel into next year.
Opposition to the use of Fort Sill to house about 1,200 children in troop barracks has been growing among state officials in Oklahoma and the Oklahoma Congressional delegation.
"There is significant concern the contract with Fort Sill is turning into a commitment beyond what was originally proposed by the administration and will soon begin to impede on the base's vital responsibility to house and train new recruits," Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, the ranking GOP member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said earlier this week.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, whose district includes Fort Sill, issued a similar statement saying: "I remain strongly opposed to use of our military bases for housing illegals, and most certainly do not support any time extension for HHS use of these facilities."
Gov. Mary Fallin, R-Oklahoma, has also begun an online petition campaign to close the shelters on military bases to the estimated 60,000 children under the age of 17 – most of them from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras -- who have arrived at the southern borders since last October.
On Monday, President Obama focused on the unaccompanied immigrant children crisis at a White House meeting with Hagel, Homeland Secretary Jeh Johnson, and HHS Secretary Sylvia Matthews Burwell.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said later that the numbers of children being picked up at the border by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) appeared to be going down. In June, about 355 children were apprehended by CBP daily, but in the first two weeks of July the number had dropped to about 150, Earnest said.
The apparent decrease was due to a number of factors, Earnest said, but "we do believe the administration's response and efforts to work with Central American leaders to publicize the dangers of the journey, and re-inforce that apprehended migrants are ultimately returned to their home countries in keeping with the law, have all played a part."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com