The Health and Human Services Department has asked the Pentagon for space to house up to 5,000 illegal immigrant children this year, officials tell The Washington Times, as the administration continues to grapple with the border crisis.
HHS is also planning to transfer or reprogram nearly $400 million to pay for the surge of juveniles, known as Unaccompanied Alien Children or UAC in government-speak.
Asking the Pentagon for additional beds has long been expected — a larger request was prepared last summer, and site visits were made — but a major surge in recent months has pushed HHS’s current shelters to capacity, and forced it to ask for assistance.
HHS called it a “temporary influx” and said the exact sites are still to be determined.
There’s also a precedent for the move. The Obama administration made similar requests for fiscal years 2015, 2016 and 2017 — although the last military facility used to house UAC closed in February 2017, just after the Trump administration took office.
“Based on the anticipated growth pattern in referrals of UAC from DHS to HHS, HHS is preparing for the need for high bed capacity to continue,” said Evelyn Stauffer, a senior adviser at HHS’s Administration for Children and Families.
“As we have over the past six years, HHS is once again requesting the assistance of the Department of Defense (DoD) to help respond to the migration influx of unaccompanied alien children (UAC) along our southern border by identifying and making available space for up to 5,000 UAC temporary influx beds in one or more DoD installations in the Continental United States,” she said in a statement to The Times.
Unaccompanied children are those who cross the border without parents. Under current law, most of them must be quickly transferred from Homeland Security to HHS, which holds them in dorm-like shelters until they can be placed with sponsors — often parents already living illegally in the U.S.
The phenomenon began in earnest in 2013, peaked in 2014, dropped to lows in early 2017, and has surged again in recent months.
HHS said 6,546 UAC were transferred to their custody by Homeland Security in February. That was nearly 120 percent more than in February 2018. January was 45 percent higher than the same month a year ago.
All told, HHS has some 11,600 children in custody.
As of the end of last year, the children were averaging 89 days at the facilities before they were released to sponsors. That was up from an average of 60 days for most of 2018.
Officials said they expected the duration to come down, now that HHS has decided it no longer needs to do as extensive a set of checks before releasing the children to homes.
The military facilities will still be run by HHS, and the department will reimburse the Pentagon for the costs.
To help pay for the surge of children, HHS will transfer up to $286 million from within the department to the Office of Refugee Resettlement and will reprogram up to $99 million within ORR.
Similar reallocations were done by the Obama administration beginning in 2012, and then by the Trump administration in 2018.
HHS must notify Congress 15 days before it transfers the money within its accounts.
“These transfers are a temporary solution to the permanent consequence of a broken immigration system,” Ms. Stauffer said.
Both the new bed space and the fund transfers are still likely to spark criticism from Democrats on Capitol Hill and from immigrant-rights advocates who bristled last year when the administration first said it was considering using military bases.
Some of the objections are misplaced, with opponents mixing up images they see of children at Homeland Security detention facilities with those of the HHS shelters.
HHS officials say there aren’t any easy alternatives to tapping the military for more space.
One option would be to leave the children in Homeland Security custody. Not only is that illegal — they’re supposed to be transferred within 72 hours — but CBP’s facilities are far less accommodating for children.
Another option would be to speed releases to sponsors.
But when the Obama administration did that in 2014, at the beginning of the UAC surge, corners were cut, leaving some children placed in homes with criminals or even human traffickers. One Ohio case saw Guatemalan children placed on farms with people who posed as relatives. The children were forced into labor on the farms.
Current HHS shelters are run on grants, paid to state-licensed facilities around the country.
Those facilities are increasingly under scrutiny by the Homeland Security inspector general and members of Congress.
HHS said there’s no specific trigger to activate a Defense Department site.
The Pentagon has been roped into helping out with the border surge in other areas, too.
Homeland Security has created tent detention centers to expand its capacity to hold migrants. The military is also providing more manpower in the form of National Guard and active-duty troops on the border.
And President Trump last month announced he would tap Pentagon funds to construct his border wall.
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