US drops search for new shelters to house child immigrants
By Anita Kumar | McClatchy Washington Bureau | Published: August 22, 2014
WASHINGTON (MCT) — The Obama administration has quietly abandoned its aggressive months-long search for emergency shelters across the nation as the number of children illegally crossing the southern border alone continues to drop.
At the same time, three facilities at military bases in Texas, California and Oklahoma set up as shelters are no longer housing children from Central America.
An official with the Department of Health and Human Services, which led the search for shelters, said there’s been a decrease in the number of children apprehended at the border and an increase in the number of children sent to live with families or friends.
“We have begun to see some initial signs of progress along our southwest border,” said Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for HHS’ Administration for Children and Families.
The number of unaccompanied children traveling from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, most through the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, surged this year. But officials say the influx slowed this summer likely because of many factors, including the weather, a media campaign urging parents not to send their children to the U.S. and the arrest of some bringing children over the border.
Advocacy groups that work with immigrants cautioned that there is always a dip in the numbers during hot summer months and that they could spike again.
“It’s seasonal,” said Megan McKenna of Kids In Need of Defense, an organization that provides legal services to unaccompanied immigrant children. “We’ll see what happens when it becomes cooler.”
President Barack Obama asked Congress to approve nearly $4 billion to help with the higher numbers of immigrants crossing the border — including more Border Patrol agents, judges and lawyers and more beds at detention centers — but lawmakers left town for their annual summer recess without acting.
Marshall Fitz, director of immigration policy at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, said the administration may have dropped the search for new shelters because it didn’t have the money.
“Obviously this will become an issue if the numbers climb up again, but without the resources they can’t put into place the infrastructure that might be needed in the future,” Fitz said.
Obama, frustrated by a lack of action on Capitol Hill, said he will act by himself to help ease the nation’s illegal immigration problems later this summer after receiving legal recommendations from the attorney general on what he can do alone.
“My preference would be an actual comprehensive immigration law,” Obama told reporters recently.
Obama is considering increasing the number of skilled workers that can come to the U.S., deferring deportations and providing relief for immigrants closely related to U.S. citizens or who have lived here a certain number of years.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said earlier this month that after Congress left town he was forced to dial back some plans at the border as well as move $405 million from other programs to help deal with immigrants in the Rio Grande Valley. “Given Congress’ failure to act, the department is left with no good choices,” he said.
The federal government has been housing unaccompanied minors at nearly 100 shelters across the nation, which will continue. For example, a pair of shelters have operated for years in the Miami area. Those standard shelters are significantly less costly than temporary emergency shelters, Wolfe said.
An HHS document describes the shelters as “consistently quiet and good neighbors in the communities where they are located.” HHS contracts with organizations, such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Heartland Alliance, to run the shelters.
Dawnya Underwood, who works at Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, which runs a shelter in Michigan and another in Oregon, said the children eat, attend school, meet with case workers and have spiritual time at the shelters.
The administration began a frenetic search for more shelters, in many cases thousands of miles from the border, in May. But the facilities were hard to come by in part because the administration failed to consult — or even notify — state and local leaders of potential sites. In many cases, facilities eventually were rejected after an uproar ensued when the public learned about the location.
The decision to abandon the search altogether was made this month after the administration released statistics that showed the number of unaccompanied minors dropped by nearly half in July from the previous two months.
About 5,500 children were apprehended in July, down from more than 10,000 in May and June. Nearly 63,000 children were taken into custody since October, officials said
This month, children left the three shelters on military bases that opened in May and June: a 1,100-bed facility at Joint Base San Antonio, a military facility in Texas; a 600-bed facility at Naval Base Ventura County-Port Hueneme in California; and a 1,200-bed facility at Fort Sill in Oklahoma.
The Pentagon and the General Services Administration had recommended other sites for shelters, but they were not needed.
Wolfe said the shelters on military bases could be reopened for a limited time if the number of children increases significantly.
“The situation at the border remains fluid,” he said. “Looking forward, there remains substantial uncertainty about future flows of unaccompanied children.”
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