A U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) spokesperson confirmed Wednesday that officials are expected to tour vacant military properties to shelter unaccompanied migrant children in tents “at some point in the future.”
In an email to VOA, the official from the Administration for Children and Families at HHS said Fort Bliss near El Paso, Texas; Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene,Texas; and Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas, are being evaluated to build tent cities at military posts.
U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) staff is expected to join HHS officials and “will make the determination if any of the three sites assessed are suitable and selected for unaccompanied alien children program operations.”
The official said HHS will continue to keep “local and congressional officials informed during this assessment and selection process.”
According to McClatchy, which first reported the story, the tent city at Fort Bliss alone is expected to hold between 1,000 and 5,000 children each.
HHS told VOA that it currently has 11,200 children in its care which is putting a strain on its 100 shelters. How many of those children were separated from their parents at the border is unclear. Some possibly came as unaccompanied minors.
A government official, who agreed to speak with Reuters only on the condition of anonymity, said he could not provide “up-to-date statistics,” on family separations but acknowledged the number has risen sharply in recent weeks, largely because of “new administration policies.”
Immigration advocates say children are currently being separated from their parents as they come into the country at the U.S. Mexico border.
“Children belong with their families or in their communities, not in tents under extreme heat, without water or proper ventilation. Trump is fueling the humanitarian crisis that his own administration has exacerbated by intentionally separating children from their parents and falsely labeling them as ‘unaccompanied minors’ to justify keeping them behind bars,” said Jess Morales Rocketto, Political Director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Chair of the We Belong Together campaign.
In May, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “zero-tolerance” policy, which means that those detained entering the United States illegally would be criminally charged. This approach generally leads to children being separated from their parents.
“If you cross the border unlawfully, even a first offense, we’re going to prosecute you. … If you don’t want your child to be separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally.” Sessions told a gathering of the Association of State Criminal Investigative Agencies.
The cost to detain unaccompanied children at shelters is about $250 per day and it might be higher for younger children (under the age of five), according to a 2015 GAO Report.
Ashley Feasley, director of policy at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said families apprehended by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol are now referred for prosecution and taken into custody for criminal prosecution with the cost of detaining the adults at a cost of $85 per day.
Adding to the cost, Feasley said, is that children now have separate immigration cases.
“Yes, separate cases from their parents and sometimes separate from their siblings, depends on circumstances,” she said.
The HHS official told VOA the Office of Refugee Resettlement “is responsible and required to care for minors who are in the country illegally without a parent or guardian” and is “routinely evaluating the needs and capacity of an existing network of approximately 100 shelters in 14 states.”
The official stood behind the Trump administration decisions on border security and said the lack of parental protection, and the hazardous journey they take, make unaccompanied alien children vulnerable to human trafficking, exploitation and abuse.
“In some cases many violent gangs, including MS-13, are exploiting loopholes in U.S. laws to bring gang members into the United States or recruit unaccompanied alien children once placed with a sponsor,” the HHS official said.