The U.S. Defense Department won't open any more military bases to house border kids and will phase out the program at bases currently in use, Pentagon and White House officials said Monday.
The Department of Health and Human Services has leased space at three military bases – Fort Sill, Oklahoma; Lackland Air Force Base, Texas; and Naval Base Ventura, California – to house unaccompanied children arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.
In a statement on Monday, HHS said the Fort Sill site could be closed as early as next week. The remaining shelters for the mostly Central American children could also close over the next two to eight weeks, it said. However, the facilities would be kept on standby in the event of another surge of children at the border, it said.
Currently, about 700 kids are being housed at the three bases, down from 2,700 in recent weeks as HHS's Administration for Children and Families moved the children to spaces at non-profits to await placement with relatives or guardians. They then would have hearings before immigration judges to determine their status.
Since May and June, when the three bases were opened up to the border kids, a total of about 7,700 children have been housed temporarily at the locations, HHS said. DoD "has been an exemplary partner in this humanitarian response," it said.
Last month, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel offered an additional 5,000 spaces for HHS but those spaces apparently were no longer needed. Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state and Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama had been rumored to be on the list to take in more children, if necessary.
"We are able to take this step because we have proactively expanded capacity to care for children in standard shelters, which are significantly less costly facilities," HHS said. "At the same time, we have seen a decrease in the number of children crossing the southwest border."
The placement of the children at military bases had brought criticism from some members of Congress, particularly Republicans, who charged that military readiness at the bases was being compromised by the presence of the children.
At a hearing in Texas last month, Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, complained that "our military bases are turning into refugee camps. I never thought I'd see this in the United States of America."
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, the ranking GOP member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement that the placement of children at Fort Sill "will soon begin to impede on the base's vital responsibility to house and train new recruits."
According to the Homeland Security Department's Customs Command and Border Protection unit, 52,193 unaccompanied children aged 17 and below were apprehended at the southwestern border from last Oct. 1 through June 15, almost double the amount from the same period a year ago.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com