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Grand Forks base could host unaccompanied minors from Mexico, Central America

By John Hageman | Grand Forks Herald (Tribune News Service) | Published: December 31, 2015

Grand Forks Air Force Base may be a temporary home for unaccompanied children coming across the United States' southern border, a Defense Department official said Wednesday.

Lt. Col. Thomas Crosson, a DOD spokesman, said the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services asked for a total of 5,000 beds at military facilities to meet an increase in demand. HHS would be responsible for overseeing and funding the operation.

"They'll have the facility from us, but they're going to staff it," Crosson said. "DOD's role, if they select Grand Forks, would be just to provide them with the facility."

U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said Grand Forks is among six defense facilities being considered for temporary housing, and it wouldn't be the only base handling the additional beds.

HHS officials will visit the base "in the coming days" to determine if it would be suitable for temporary shelter, HHS spokeswoman Andrea Helling said.

"Base officials will join HHS staff as they tour the vacant facilities available for HHS use," she wrote in an email. "The Department of Defense and HHS will continue to keep local and congressional officials informed throughout this assessment and selection process."

History

The move would have precedent. The military was housing 2,700 minors in unused facilities at three bases as of July 2014 during a surge of children coming across the border, according to ABC News.

Minors coming from the "Northern Triangle" countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are often fleeing from gang or cartel violence, according to the American Immigration Council.

In the year that ended in September 2014, about 57,000 unaccompanied children were referred to HHS' care, compared to the 34,000 in the following year. In just October and November alone, 10,000 children crossed the border, Helling said.

"This time around, we're paying very close attention to the numbers of kids coming across the border and expanding capacity to make sure we have enough beds to take the children so they don't end up holed up in the Border Patrol stations," she said in a phone interview.

Only children who are medically cleared would be transferred to a military base, Helling said. On average, a child is in HHS care for 32 days while officials find a U.S. sponsor, often a family member.

Once children leave HHS care, they go through immigration proceedings, Helling added.

Concerns

Cramer was notified Wednesday of the potential for Grand Forks Air Force Base to be used for temporary shelter. He pointed to bills passed by the House to build more detention facilities at the border.

"One, I don't think it's the way, humanely, to deal with unaccompanied children from Central America is to put them on a military base," Cramer told the Herald. "The second thing is, it's an inappropriate use of a military base."

Cramer added that moving children farther from the border is "problematic" because "it makes deportation that much more difficult.

"And the first priority of the program should be to reunite these children with their parents back in Central America or Mexico," he said. "So I don't think going to Grand Forks is the right direction."
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Entrance to Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D.
Courtesy U.S. Air Force

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