Officials in Oklahoma are objecting to a plan for Fort Sill to temporarily house hundreds of unaccompanied young immigrants who entered the country illegally.
The Defense Department is loaning training barracks facilities at Fort Sill to the Department of Health and Human Services to house the children, Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren confirmed in a statement Monday. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has approved the use of Fort Sill for up to 120 days in anticipation of their arrival this week.
On Friday, Gov. Mary Fallin, faulted the Obama administration’s immigration policy as promoting illegal immigration and calling the move, “the latest in a long line of policy missteps.”
“While they have assured my office this arrangement is temporary, the Obama administration continues to fail in its duty to protect our borders and continues to promote policies that encourage, rather than discourage, illegal immigration,” Fallin, a Republican, said in a statement released Friday.
On June 2, the president ordered the Department of Homeland Security to establish a group to deal with the influx of unaccompanied children crossing the southwest border. The Federal Emergency Management Agency was chosen to lead federal efforts to provide relief to the affected children.
The latest government estimates anticipate 60,000 unaccompanied minors will arrive in the country this year, up from 6,560 in fiscal year 2011. Among the latest influx are growing numbers of girls and children under 12.
More than 90 percent of those sheltered by the government are from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, many driven north by pervasive violence and poverty in their home countries, the Associated Press reported. 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, AP reported.
When intercepted by authorities, such children are held in agency-contracted shelters while a search is conducted for family, a sponsor or a foster parent who can care for them through their immigration court hearings, where many will apply for asylum or other special protective status. The program is overseen by the federal Department of Health and Human Services.
Officials with Fallin’s office said Friday it was informed by a regional Department of Homeland Security official that the post was being considered to house up to 1,200 unaccompanied minors who illegally crossed the southern border of the United States.
On Monday morning, the Defense Department said Fort Sill was readying to accommodate 600 children, making it the third DoD installation HHS is using this way. Some 1,200 children are under HHS’s care at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, and Naval Base Ventura County in California. All told, the DoD facilities can accommodate 2,375 children.
Warren said DoD’s priority is to help the agency provide safe and secure temporary facilities for unaccompanied children.
“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 said.
The facilities will include beds, showers and office space. HHS representatives supervise the children and provide education and recreational opportunities until they can be reunited with families or placed in foster care.
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., ranking member of Senate Armed Services Committee, was among Oklahoma lawmakers who criticized the president. He said it was a misuse of military facilities.
“Our nation has an immigration problem and a national security crisis, but I don’t believe the answer is for our military facilities to be transformed into a center that houses, feeds, and cares for illegal immigrants,” Inhofe said in a statement.
Acknowledging the average child in this pool would be between 13 and 17, Inhofe sounded the alarm over the move, saying it, “it exposes our military facilities to unknown security concerns.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.