The possibility that Grand Forks Air Forks Base could temporarily host unaccompanied minors crossing the country's southern border has drawn more criticism from members of North Dakota's congressional delegation.
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said Wednesday that "it doesn't make sense to bring unaccompanied alien minors to a northern tier Air Force base" like Grand Forks, which is about 1,500 miles north of the southern border.
"Our objective should be to reunite these children with their families in their country of origin," he added in a news release.
In an interview with the Herald, he said that goal is better served by housing children in facilities closer to the border.
On Tuesday, Hoeven spoke with Mary Wakefield, acting deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and a North Dakota native. She plans to keep North Dakota and Grand Forks leaders in the loop on their progress, he said.
Federal officials told the Herald two weeks ago Grand Forks Air Force Base was among six defense facilities being considered for temporarily housing children from Central America and Mexico. The base could provide shelter for up to 300 minors who have crossed the border without adult supervision, according to Hoeven's news release.
Gang and cartel violence has prompted minors in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to flee in recent years, according to the American Immigration Council.
A decision on whether to use Grand Forks Air Force Base is not expected to be imminent.
"Our federal agencies are assessing whether several locations across the country have the capacity to temporarily process unaccompanied children in the case of another surge at the border," Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said in a statement. "I'll stay in touch with the appropriate federal agencies as they make their determinations."
Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., raised concerns with the idea when he was first notified at the end of 2015. On Dec. 31, he wrote a letter to Office of Refugee Resettlement Director Robert Carey and spoke on the House floor on the issue a week later.
In his letter to Carey, Cramer requested HHS remove Grand Forks Air Force Base from consideration for temporary shelter.
"At a time when our nation faces serious security threats both at home and abroad, the full resources of the United States military should be directed toward the constitutional responsibility of defending the country, not the housing of illegal immigrants," Cramer wrote.
In his floor speech, he said "funding sufficient to meet the needs at the southern border was provided" in a recent spending bill.
Cramer met with White House officials, as well as the Defense Department and HHS Tuesday to discuss the proposal.
"While I am still opposed to housing undocumented alien children at any military installation, I will work with the president to see if an equitable solution can be found which doesn't threaten national security and achieves my goal of returning these children to their parents in their own country," Cramer said in a statement released Wednesday.
Hoeven said he didn't get the sense there's a concern about the base's operations being interrupted but added it would be easier logistically if the children are closer to the border.
HHS spokeswoman Andrea Helling said on Jan. 3 she didn't expect a decision on whether to use Grand Forks Air Force Base "for at least a few weeks," and said Wednesday no decision has yet been made. She previously told the Herald the department was "paying very close attention to the number of kids coming across the border and expanding capacity."
Roughly 57,000 unaccompanied children were referred to HHS care in the year that ended in September 2014, Helling previously said. The military was housing 2,700 minors in unused facilities at three bases in July 2014, according to ABC News.
Lt. Col. Thomas Crosson, a DOD spokesman, previously told the Herald HHS had requested 5,000 beds at military facilities to accommodate an increase in demand. HHS would be responsible for overseeing and funding the operation, he said.
Children would go through a medical evaluation before being transferred to a military base, Helling said. They would also go through immigration proceedings once they leave HHS care.
Children are in HHS care for an average of 32 days while officials find a U.S. sponsor, Helling said in December.
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