WASHINGTON — Faced with an unrelenting stream of children crossing the southern U.S. border, the Obama administration wants to greatly expand the number of unaccompanied immigrant minors housed at domestic military bases and extend the time they can stay there.
The Department of Health and Human Services has asked the Defense Department for the authority to house another 5,000 children on bases, in addition to the roughly 3,000 or already being sheltered at three bases, including Fort Sill, according to Capitol Hill sources.
It was not clear Thursday evening whether Fort Sill would gain more children — or even continue housing children past October when the first authority expires.
The U.S. Army post — which conducts artillery training — currently has nearly 1,200 children, mostly teenagers.
Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell seemed to indicate Thursday afternoon that Fort Sill’s involvement would continue.
At a Senate hearing, she was asked specifically about Fort Sill. After first explaining that her department would rather have new permanent facilities than continue using temporary ones, she said, “Right now, with the Department of Defense, we had 120 days. We’ve renewed that for additional days.”
More on the children being housed at Fort Sill:
Critics of housing children at military bases warned last month that it wouldn’t end after 120 days. The administration now is seeking space on bases through January.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore, whose district includes Fort Sill, said Thursday, “As suspected, the surge of illegal juveniles at our borders and the president’s supposedly temporary plan to use military bases for housing is looking more permanent by the day.
“By requesting expansion of the military facilities and setting an even longer time frame, it appears that the administration intends to turn military bases into permanent detention facilities. This is an incredible failure on the part of the administration and an incredible injustice to our service men and women for which these facilities are designed.”
More than 57,000 children have crossed the southern border since the fiscal year began in October, and officials have estimated that a total of 90,000 will do so by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.
Most are fleeing violence in Honduras, Guatamala and El Salvador.
Cole and other members of Oklahoma’s congressional delegation have said that military bases are inappropriate sites for housing the minors, because of the security risks and the distraction from the main missions at the bases.
Cole said President Barack Obama “must stop the rhetoric and get serious about solving this problem. That means sending these individuals back to their country of origin and doing so as expeditiously as possible. It’s time to stop trying to manage the flow and fix the problem.”
The Health and Human Services Department conducted a tour Thursday at Fort Sill for members of the media, who were not allowed to take pictures, ask questions or interact with children or staff.
Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Tulsa, who was turned away last week when he tried to take an unscheduled tour of the Fort Sill facility, said Thursday that he plans to take Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., with him for his scheduled tour Saturday.
Bridenstine also suggested that he may not abide by the restrictions imposed on the media.