Plan to House Migrant Children on Military Bases Shelved Indefinitely

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Border Patrol agents take Central American immigrants into custody on January 4, 2017 near McAllen, Texas. (John Moore/Getty Images)
Border Patrol agents take Central American immigrants into custody on January 4, 2017 near McAllen, Texas. (John Moore/Getty Images)

The Trump administration appears to have shelved indefinitely a plan that would have housed unaccompanied migrant children on military bases in the southwest.

The military stood ready to comply with requests to take in "unaccompanied alien children," but the Defense Department had yet to receive any notifications from the Departments of Health and Human Services and Homeland Security to prepare for arrivals, said Army Lt. Col. Jamie Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.

HHS officials have reportedly told the Pentagon previously that the use of military bases for the overflow of migrant children was unlikely, and Mark Weber, an HHS spokesman, said via e-mail Tuesday that the plan was "on indefinite hold."

If asked, "DoD will be willing and ready to support" HHS in dealing with the crisis at the border brought on by the surge of undocumented immigrants, mostly from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, Davis said.

The possibility of using military bases to house up to 20,000 migrant children and adults first surfaced last spring.

In June, Dana White, the Pentagon's chief spokesperson, said the decision would be up to HHS, but added that "we are very open to providing facilities and working closely with them to ensure that their needs are met."

HHS then conducted site surveys at Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene, Texas; Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas; Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas; and Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas.

In late June, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said at a news briefing that the possibilities had been narrowed to Goodfellow and Bliss. He said housing undocumented migrants on military bases is a "legitimate government function," but it was up to HHS.

In a previous surge at the border in 2014, then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered military bases to be opened up to migrant children. More than 3,000 children were then temporarily housed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma; Lackland Air Force Base, Texas; and Naval Base Ventura, California.

At the time, the DoD worked out lease arrangements with HHS to offer up excess or empty base buildings to house the children, and HHS was responsible for their care.

Under President Donald Trump's "zero tolerance" policy, adults crossing illegally face criminal prosecution and can be held in federal jails. Minors under the age of 18 cannot be prosecuted or put in federal detention under U.S. law.

Through the summer, HHS has focused on holding migrant children at its existing network of more than 100 civilian shelters for unaccompanied alien children in 17 states rather than requesting help from the military.

Under law, HHS is "required to shelter and care for unaccompanied alien children (UAC) until the children are released to a suitable sponsor, removed after their immigration proceedings, or turn 18," according to the department.

About 12,800 unaccompanied children are now in federal custody. In recent weeks, HHS has been expanding a tent city shelter in Tornillo, Texas, near El Paso to take in unaccompanied boys.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at richard.sisk@military.com.

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