The De­fense

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY NICK MIROFF AND PAUL SONNE nick.miroff@wash­post.com paul.sonne@wash­post.com

De­part­ment is eval­u­at­ing mil­i­tary in­stal­la­tions for suit­abil­ity to hold im­mi­grant chil­dren.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is mak­ing prepa­ra­tions to hold im­mi­grant chil­dren on mil­i­tary bases, ac­cord­ing to De­fense De­part­ment com­mu­ni­ca­tions, the lat­est sign the govern­ment is mov­ing for­ward with plans to split up fam­i­lies who cross the bor­der il­le­gally.

Ac­cord­ing to an email no­ti­fi­ca­tion sent to Pen­tagon staffers, the De­part­ment of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices (HHS) will make site vis­its at four mil­i­tary in­stal­la­tions in Texas and Ar­kan­sas dur­ing the next two weeks to eval­u­ate their suit­abil­ity to shel­ter chil­dren.

The bases would be used for mi­nors un­der 18 who ar­rive at the bor­der with­out an adult rel­a­tive or after the govern­ment has sep­a­rated them from their par­ents. HHS is the govern­ment agency re­spon­si­ble for pro­vid­ing mi­nors with fos­ter care un­til another adult rel­a­tive can as­sume cus­tody.

The email char­ac­ter­ized the site vis­its as a pre­lim­i­nary as­sess­ment. “No de­ci­sions have been made at this time,” it states.

An of­fi­cial at HHS con­firmed the mil­i­tary site vis­its, speak­ing on the con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause the plans are not yet pub­lic. The of­fi­cial said that HHS cur­rently has the bed space to hold 10,571 chil­dren.

In a state­ment, the agency’s Ad­min­is­tra­tion for Chil­dren and Fam­i­lies said its pro­grams re­quire “rou­tinely eval­u­at­ing the needs and ca­pac­ity of an ex­ist­ing net­work of ap­prox­i­mately 100 shel­ters in 14 states.”

“Ad­di­tional prop­er­ties with ex­ist­ing in­fras­truc­ture are rou­tinely be­ing iden­ti­fied and eval­u­ated by fed­eral agen­cies as po­ten­tial lo­ca­tions for tem­po­rary shel­ter­ing,” the state­ment said.

Those fa­cil­i­ties are at 91 per­cent ca­pac­ity, the HHS of­fi­cial said, and the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s crack­down plans could push thou­sands more chil­dren into govern­ment care. The of­fi­cial said that DHS has not pro­vided pro­jec­tions for how many ad­di­tional chil­dren to ex­pect.

Trump of­fi­cials say they are mov­ing force­fully to halt a sharp in­crease in the num­ber of fam­i­lies cross­ing the bor­der il­le­gally this spring, many of whom are Cen­tral Amer­i­cans seek­ing asy­lum. U.S. bor­der agents in March and April ar­rested more than 100,000 peo­ple who crossed the bor­der il­le­gally, the high­est monthly to­tals since Pres­i­dent Trump took of­fice.

Trump has seethed at the in­crease, sin­gling out Home­land Se­cu­rity Sec­re­tary Kirst­jen Nielsen for blame.

He has ordered her to “close” the bor­der and cut off the mi­gra­tion flows, which typ­i­cally in­crease in spring with sea­sonal de­mand for ru­ral la­bor.

Nielsen and At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions say the govern­ment will take the ex­traor­di­nary mea­sure of fil­ing crim­i­nal charges against any­one who crosses the bor­der il­le­gally, in­clud­ing par­ents trav­el­ing with their chil­dren. In most cases, that means adults will be held at im­mi­gra­tion jails to await court dates while their chil­dren are sent into fos­ter care.

“If you’re smug­gling a child, then we’re go­ing to pros­e­cute you, and that child will be sep­a­rated from you, prob­a­bly, as re­quired by law,” Ses­sions said in a speech last week.

“If you don’t want your child sep­a­rated, then don’t bring them across the bor­der il­le­gally,” he added. “It’s not our fault that some­body does that.”

Chil­dren held in HHS cus­tody spend an av­er­age of 45 days in the govern­ment’s care, the HHS of­fi­cial said, and they are pro­vided with ed­u­ca­tional and recre­ational op­por­tu­ni­ties. The agency con­ducts back­ground checks on po­ten­tial spon­sors for the mi­nors, and in 85 per­cent of cases the chil­dren are re­leased to a par­ent or other adult rel­a­tive al­ready present in the United States, the of­fi­cial said.

Home­land Se­cu­rity of­fi­cials have strug­gled for years to man­age the de­mo­graphic shift in the pop­u­la­tion of im­mi­grants ar­rested at the bor­der, where sin­gle men from Mex­ico were once the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of those taken into cus­tody.

Fam­i­lies with chil­dren and un­ac­com­pa­nied mi­nors made up 10 per­cent of il­le­gal bor­der crossers five years ago, Nielsen told sen­a­tors in tes­ti­mony Tues­day. To­day, they ac­count for 40 per­cent of those de­tained by U.S. bor­der agents, she said.

At the peak of the 2014 childim­mi­gra­tion cri­sis, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion used bases in Oklahoma, Texas and Cal­i­for­nia to house more than 7,000 chil­dren over a pe­riod of sev­eral months.

Crit­ics of the fam­ily-sep­a­ra­tion prac­tices de­nounce the prac­tice as heart­less, say­ing it in­flicts ad­di­tional trauma on fam­i­lies flee­ing from Cen­tral Amer­ica’s bloody gang wars.

Trump last month ordered the Pen­tagon to help Home­land Se­cu­rity of­fi­cials cope with the surge in il­le­gal cross­ings, in­clud­ing the mo­bi­liza­tion of up to 4,000 Na­tional Guard troops. Mil­i­tary per­son­nel have been de­ployed in a sup­port­ing role and are not al­lowed to ar­rest im­mi­grants.

It is not clear whether the troops could be as­signed to the bases where chil­dren will be held. Three of the bases are in Texas — the Army’s Fort Bliss, Good­fel­low Air Force Base and Dyess Air Force Base. Lit­tle Rock Air Force Base in Ar­kan­sas also will be eval­u­ated, ac­cord­ing to the Pen­tagon com­mu­ni­ca­tions and HHS.

A Pen­tagon spokesman, Lt. Col. Jamie Davis, said the De­fense De­part­ment had not yet re­ceived a for­mal re­quest from HHS. When the mil­i­tary has loaned space at its fa­cil­i­ties in the past, HHS has re­im­bursed the De­fense De­part­ment and the mil­i­tary has had lit­tle to do with the op­er­a­tion.

“If you’re smug­gling a child, then we’re go­ing to pros­e­cute you. . . . If you don’t want your child sep­a­rated, then don’t bring them across the bor­der il­le­gally. It’s not our fault that some­body does that.” At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions, in a speech last week

LOREN EL­LIOTT/REUTERS

Im­mi­grants who had il­le­gally crossed into the United States turn them­selves in to Bor­der Pa­trol agents May 9 near McAllen, Tex.

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