LAWTON — Buses of children began arriving in the early morning hours Friday at Fort Sill as city officials and immigration advocates braced for the arrival of as many as 1,200 immigrant minors.
One bus arrived shortly before 8 a.m. The white passenger bus with “Coach USA” emblazoned on the side pulled through the fort’s entry gates. The bus then pulled up to a building that post officials had earlier identified as the area where incoming children would stay.
Many of the children on the bus appeared to be teenagers. They shielded their faces from the sun as they pulled into the front gates. One young male removed a pair of bright white headphones as he peered out a window towards the sprawling post.
A Fort Sill police officer said buses began arriving at the post around 3 a.m. Friday. Fort Sill is expected to house 600 to 1,200 immigrant minors as the children go through the various stages of the deportation process. The children were caught at the U.S. border while fleeing Central American countries, and workers will try to reunite the children with their families or find them a sponsor.
Douglas Stump, an Oklahoma City immigration attorney and president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said some of the children, particularly Mexican nationals, will likely be deported very soon, while others may be here weeks or months before deportation. Stump said some may stay in the U.S. and others can voluntarily deport.
“Fifteen percent don’t have families and need to be screened for asylum or relief,” Stump said. “Ultimately the majority of these kids will be deported.”
Some of the children may be able to find legal representation through organizations like Catholic Charities, said Richard Klinge, associate director of the organization’s Oklahoma City chapter.
“What we’re doing right now is just analyzing what role if any Catholic Charities is going to play or needs to play in this situation that involves these children,” Klinge said. “We just want to make sure these children are properly protected.”
Dan Kowalski, an Austin, Texas-based immigration attorney, said the U.S. government is not required to give the children legal representation, and many nonprofits will likely be overwhelmed.
“Will the nonprofits and the legal community in the largest sense, meaning individual lawyers, small firms, big pro-bonos, will they be able to provide enough lawyers to handle all of these individual kids?” Kowalski said. “I’m afraid the answer is going to be no.”
Kowalski said he also wonders how the immigration courts and federal agencies like U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will be able to adequately keep track of those going through deportation hearings as they migrate through the country.
Federal employees will be brought to Lawton to see to the needs of the children at a ratio of one worker to every two children — meaning at least 300 workers and as many as 600 are expected to flood the community in the coming days, filling hotels and rental houses, city officials said. While the children will be housed on fort grounds, the workers will not.
On Thursday, Lawton Mayor Fred Fitch spoke with The Oklahoman about the impact the mission at Fort Sill could have on the Lawton community. Though the military has said the children will stay just a short time, Fitch said he believes the mission will continue longer.
“I don’t see an end to it in 120 days,” he said. “I think this will be a continued mission and will continue to expand.”
Lawton’s population is 12.6 percent Hispanic, higher than the state average of 8.9 percent, according to U.S. Census data from 2010.
“Fort Sill has created a very diverse population here,” Fitch said, noting how people come to the area for the military, but end up retiring and calling Lawton home.