LAWTON — After speaking at a recent meeting of the Greater Lawton Rotary Club, Mayor Fred Fitch was asked a question about the federal program that has temporarily housed more than 1,000 children who fled Central America at Fort Sill.
His answer, he said, was only going to take two minutes.
The program to help handle a flood of unaccompanied children crossing the U.S. border illegally largely has been kept under wraps, frustrating city and state officials. Monday, Gov. Mary Fallin called on the White House to end the secrecy surrounding the use of military facilities as temporary shelters for children, most of whom are fleeing violence in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
An agreement to loan three facilities — at Fort Sill, Texas and California — to the Department of Health and Human Services has been extended to Jan. 31, said Lt. Col. Tom Crosson, a spokesman for the defense secretary’s office. The children being housed there could be phased out earlier, he said.
As mayor of Lawton, Fitch is used to working closely with Fort Sill, but it’s been difficult to get answers regarding this program, he said.
“It’s uncomfortable for a person in my position to not be able to answer some of the questions that do come up in the community,” he said.
Of particular concern is whether the children who have been placed with sponsors will begin to overwhelm city schools and services like Medicaid, he said.
Lawton City Councilman Keith Jackson said because of the nature of the program, a degree of secrecy is not surprising.
“They aren’t asking our input. They aren’t asking our advice. This is way above our payscale,” he said.
Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for HHS, said he has tried to provide as much information as possible while balancing the safety of the children, as well as security for the staff caring for them. The agency also is searching for more permanent housing to phase out the use of military facilities.
There have been 212 unaccompanied immigrant children released from federal custody to sponsors — typically a parent or relative — living in Oklahoma between Jan. 1 and July 7, according to state-by-state data released by the Office of Refugee Resettlement. The number represents less than 1 percent of the total number of children with sponsors (30,340) in that time frame.
The states seeing the largest influx are Texas, Florida, California and New York.
All potential sponsors undergo a background check and federal workers verify their identity and relationship to the child. Before being released into the community, the children receive vaccinations and medical screenings, and the sponsor must agree to attend immigration proceedings.
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