LAWTON — Hundreds of young people who came across the southern U.S. border illegally are expected to begin arriving this week at Fort Sill, where they will be housed temporarily.
“Our target date to begin receiving children at Fort Sill is Friday, June 13,” Kenneth J. Wolfe, spokesman for the Administration for Children and Families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said Monday.
Gov. Mary Fallin’s office has said federal officials have notified the state that up to 1,200 of the young people may be brought to Fort Sill.
Fort Sill’s public affairs office issued a statement Monday saying the Administration for Children and Families will provide caretakers for the children.
“The agency will maintain responsibility to ensure the safety, care and treatment of the unaccompanied minors,” the statement said.
“Fort Sill will provide a vacant facility historically used by soldiers set apart from the main post that offers sleeping quarters, bathing and toilet facilities, as well as a multipurpose gathering space.”
The children will stay at Fort Sill until they can be reunited with their families or placed with a sponsor.
“Fort Sill anticipates supporting the interagency mission for up to four months or as long as directed,” the statement said.
The statement also indicated the temporary arrangement should not significantly impact the military installation’s primary mission of training and deploying soldiers and Marines.
Military installations in San Antonio and Ventura County, Calif., are also to assist in providing temporary housing for the influx of thousands of unaccompanied children, many of whom have fled to this country from Central America.
At the White House, senior administration officials speaking only on background, said the administration was trying to address “an urgent humanitarian situation” caused by an influx of minors from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala into Texas’ Rio Grande Valley. The murder rates in those three countries rank in the top five in the world, one official said.
“What we hear from the children themselves is that violence is a major reason they’re coming forward in this way and taking what is really a very perilous journey to reach the United States,” one official said.
“And in some cases there are family reunification considerations. But this has to do with what children are fleeing in Central America. And once they reach the United States, we are making sure we are doing an appropriate and effective job in meeting our responsibilities and our obligations to these young people.”
The children are first encountered by U.S. Border Patrol agents and are then turned over to the Health and Human Services Department. While they are being cared for, they also are in removal proceedings.
The officials said Fort Sill would be able to hold 600 people at first and eventually up to 1,200.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore, whose district includes Fort Sill, said in an interview Monday that he expects 1,200 people eventually to be housed there. Cole, who participated in a briefing on Monday with representatives from several federal agencies and departments on the issue, said it was an inappropriate use of military bases.
“You’re bringing hundreds of people on a military base that have no business being there,” he said. “There will be security and traffic problems. I don’t want what’s supposed to be a temporary situation to become permanent just because the military does it so well.”
Cole said lawmakers were told Monday that, of the 66,000 minors who will be detained this year, only 1,700 will return. The U.S. policy in regard to Central American minors is to find them a sponsor — a family member or friend — so they can stay, he said. Most of the minors are between 13 and 17 years old.
Organized crime syndicates are telling people in the Central American countries that now is a good time for minors to flee to the United States, Cole said, and then charging between $2,500 and $5,000 per person to get them to the border.
Cole said he was sympathetic to the children and the tough existence they have in Central American.
Still, he questioned whether the U.S. policy is encouraging criminal activity and endangering children.
“We need to have some frank policy discussions,” he said.
One administration official rejected the allegation that the children were being lured to the United States by lax immigration enforcement.
If the enforcement was that lax, the official said, there would be far more children trying to get in from other countries.
Once the children are in the custody of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, they receive classroom education, health care, socialization, recreation, vocational training, mental health services and access to legal services.
Since 2003, more than 92,000 of these children have received care under this program.
Between 2003 and 2011, an average of 6,775 children were referred to the program per year. The number of referrals jumped in 2012. In 2013, there were nearly 25,000 referrals.
A program fact sheet described the vulnerable nature of the young people:
“Their youth, their separation from a protective environment or person, and the hazardous journey they embark make UAC (unaccompanied alien children) especially vulnerable to becoming victims of human trafficking, exploitation, and abuse. UAC have multiple, inter-related reasons for undertaking the difficult journey of traveling to the United States. UAC leave their home countries to rejoin family already in the United States, to escape abusive family relationships in their home country, or to find work to support their families in the home country.”