Caitlin M. Kenney
Stars and Stripes
Fort Bliss will have 5,000 beds available for migrant children after the west Texas base was approved to temporarily house them, President Joe Biden announced Thursday.
“So what we’re doing is we’re providing for the space again to be able to get these kids out of the border patrol facilities which no child — no one — should be in any longer than 72 hours,” Biden said during his first official news conference at the White House.
The Pentagon on Wednesday approved a request from Department of Health and Human Services to use Joint Base San Antonio and Fort Bliss in El Paso to temporarily house children who were detained after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border alone.
“[The Department of Defense] will provide [Department of Health and Human Services] officials access to these locations immediately to begin initial actions to prepare for receiving unaccompanied migrant children as soon as preparations are complete,” said John Kirby, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman.
The approval came just a day after the Pentagon announced the request by HHS. The U.S. border with Mexico has experienced rising numbers in migration, including unaccompanied children, since April due to violence, natural disasters, food insecurity, and poverty in Central America, according to a Department of Homeland Security statement issued March 13.
Children who are found by U.S. Border Patrol agents must be transferred to HHS within 72 hours, but more than 3,000 children have been held for longer and in unfit facilities, according to recent news reports.
Biden said 1,000 children would be taken out of border patrol custody within the next week and put into safer facilities. He said he agreed the overcrowded conditions in border patrol facilities were not acceptable for children and was why the federal government was working to make more beds available at the military bases.
Kirby told reporters Wednesday at the Pentagon that the HHS request for support at the bases would last until the end of the year. He would not say how many children HHS expects to house at each location.
Children sent to Joint Base San Antonio will stay in a vacant dormitory. Land at Fort Bliss will be used to build temporary housing facilities. The support is “on a fully reimbursable basis” and will “not negatively affect” military operations or readiness, according to the statement.
While this would not be the first time that unaccompanied children have been housed at military installations, the coronavirus pandemic does add to health concerns among the children and base community, Kirby said.
The children will be under the care of HHS, including their supervision and meals, when they are at the bases. The Defense Department could potentially assist with contracting support at facilities to help expedite the process, Kirby said.
HHS also conducted a site survey Wednesday of Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, the headquarters for U.S. Space Command, as an additional site to house children, Kirby said, but the results from the visit are still unknown.
HHS had looked at Fort Lee near Richmond, Va., as a site for the children. However, it was determined the infrastructure was not suitable for them and is no longer being considered, Kirby said.
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