The Defense Department is loaning the facilities at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, to the Department of Health and Human Services to house about 600 unaccompanied alien children, Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren said today.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has approved the use of Fort Sill for up to 120 days, Warren said.
“We anticipate the children will arrive at Fort Sill later this week,” he added.
This is the third DOD installation that HHS is using. Some 1,200 children are under HHS’s care at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, and Naval Base Ventura County in California.
Unaccompanied children arriving in the United States is a growing problem, Health and Human Services officials said. Department officials anticipate 60,000 of them will arrive in the country this year, up from 6,560 in fiscal year 2011. Rising levels of violence in Central America is driving most of the growth, HHS officials said.
DOD’s priority is to assist Health and Human Services in providing safe and secure temporary facilities for unaccompanied children, Warren said. “Our support is limited to the loan of vacant facilities, and this effort has no impact on DOD’s ability to conduct its primary missions,” he added.
The buildings housing the children normally serve as training barracks. They include beds, showers and office space. Health and Human Services representatives supervise the children and provide education and recreational opportunities until they can be reunited with families or placed in foster care.
Immigrant children who make the long and often dangerous journey to the U.S. alone represent some of the most vulnerable individuals who interact with the U.S. immigration system, DOD officials said.
The number of children coming on their own to the United States has grown significantly in recent years, officials said. Many are escaping abuse or persecution, others are fleeing criminal gangs and violence, some are victims of trafficking or abandonment, and others seek to reunite with their families in the United States.
Among the latest influx are growing numbers of girls and children under 12.
All told, the DOD facilities can accommodate 2,375 children.
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service