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.
Sponsors aren’t required to be U.S. citizens.
In Oklahoma, immigration hearings for those not in custody are being held in Dallas, said Doug Stump, an Oklahoma City immigration attorney and past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
Like many lawyers in the Washington, D.C.-based association, he is working pro bono to represent some of these children; currently he has two clients that crossed into the country since an unprecedented surge began in October.
He criticized a Republican plan to more quickly process and deport the children and families, saying many will be eligible for legal asylum if given the opportunity.
Gang violence is rampant in Central America, one of the most violent areas in the world, and Honduras has the world’s highest homicide rate.
Those fleeing the area say they are running from gang violence and trying to reunite with family already in the U.S.
The family members have saved enough money to pay a coyote to bring their children across the border so boys won’t be forcibly recruited into gangs and daughters won’t be subjected to sexual violence.
The wave of undocumented children and teens is adding to a backlog already seen in immigration courts.
There were 375,503 pending immigration cases in the U.S. this year, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
Of those, 1,240 were in Oklahoma with an average wait time of 563 days.
How federal HHS officials are finding sponsors for the children at Fort Sill is a mystery to state Department of Human Services employees, who have struggled to find enough foster homes to care for Oklahoma’s abused and neglected children.
“We’ve not been asked to share our foster parents,” DHS spokeswoman Sheree Powell said.
“I haven’t seen any advertising that the feds have done.”
Powell said the only contact federal officials have initiated with her agency through the crisis was to inquire about child welfare histories of a few families being considered as sponsors.
DHS was unable to share that information because of child welfare privacy laws, Powell said.
Contributing: Staff Writer Randy Ellis
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