LAWTON — U.S. Health and Human Services is quickly phasing out its use of American military facilities to house young immigrants and expects to have all children moved out of Fort Sill by Friday, the agency announced Monday.
Just 190 children remained Monday at the Fort Sill shelter, an HHS official said. The move will come after the agency was able to expand capacity at traditional shelters for the children, many of whom are fleeing violence in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, and are seeking asylum in the U.S.
Fort Sill was one of three military facilities serving as short-term shelters this summer for an influx of Central American children traveling to the U.S. unaccompanied; HHS will wind down use of military facilities in Texas and California over the next two to eight weeks.
The agency was under immense political pressure to discontinue its use of military facilities for the program, in which federal workers care for the children while they receive medical screenings and are placed with a sponsor, typically a parent or relative.
Monday’s announcement was unexpected. Last week, it was made public that HHS renewed its lease with the Department of Defense to use the facilities through Jan. 31.
Gov. Mary Fallin, who has publicly criticized the use of Fort Sill for the program, issued a statement Monday.
“I am pleased that the Obama Administration is finally listening to the people of Oklahoma and acting to close the Fort Sill facility for illegal immigrants. However, I am disturbed the administration chose to renew its lease on the facility, thereby preserving the option of reopening it in the future,” she said.
Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for HHS, said the agency plans to continue caring for the children using a combination of standard shelters and “surge-capacity” shelters because of the unpredictable number of children crossing the border.
The military shelters will remain available through Jan. 31 and could be reopened if the number of children increases significantly.
However, using standard shelters is significantly less costly, he said. Many are faith-based and operated by nonprofit organizations across the country. He declined to identify the locations but said there are none in Oklahoma.
Another reason the military facilities are no longer needed is because the number of children crossing the southwest U.S. border unaccompanied has been decreasing, he said.
Fallin attributed the decrease to the summer heat, causing fewer people to cross the border illegally.
Currently there are 5,500 children in the HHS program. Since mid-June, 1,671 children have been released from Fort Sill, and more than 7,700 total have been processed through the three military facilities.
They are part of a surge of more than 57,000 who have crossed the U.S. border since October, overwhelming shelters. Many are seeking to reunite with a parent or relative already living in the U.S.
Called an “urgent humanitarian situation” by President Barack Obama, the use of the military facilities has sparked intense debate on U.S. immigration policies. An anti-human trafficking law signed in 2008 protects children entering the U.S. alone from countries other than Mexico and Canada and requires they be given an immigration hearing.
“I am very pleased by today’s announcement that HHS will discontinue using military facilities for housing unaccompanied illegal minors,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore, whose district includes Fort Sill. “I am grateful to HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell for respecting the sense of Congress, recognizing that military bases are not the right place to house these minors and working quickly to move them elsewhere.”
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, also weighed in on Monday’s announcement.
“Ultimately though, this news does nothing to stem the unprecedented flow of children across the U.S.-Mexico border or correct the President’s policies that are encouraging illegal immigration,” Inhofe said in a statement. “We should be enforcing the policies Congress put in place to keep our nation and borders secure, while respecting those who have made the concerted effort to abide by our laws.”