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Fort Sill might not be needed to house migrants, Oklahoma senator says

By CHRIS CASTEEL | The Oklahoman, Oklahoma City | Published: July 23, 2019

(Tribune News Service) — Federal officials likely won’t need to use a Fort Sill facility to hold minors from other countries until this fall, and possibly not at all, U.S. Sen. James Lankford said Monday.

“Right now they’re not going to need it,” Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican, told reporters.

“They’re just prepping it and getting it ready so if they do, they can. Based on trends, I wouldn’t think they’d need it until September or October, if the numbers start picking back up again.”

Hundreds of protesters gathered outside Fort Sill, an Army post in southwestern Oklahoma, on Saturday to condemn the U.S. government's handling of migrant children and others who have crossed the southern border. A facility at the post was used in 2014 for unaccompanied minors, and the post was tapped again this year for possible housing after a surge in border crossings. Lankford said the number of crossings had dropped dramatically since May.

Lankford spent Sunday in McAllen, Texas, the busiest southern border crossing in the nation. The senator viewed detention facilities and asylum processing facilities and toured the area with border patrol agents.

In a conference call with reporters, Lankford said he visited the facility that has become notorious for overcrowding and for “kids in cages.”

He said, “The facility was built for 1,500. There’s 1,590 now. There are adults in one section that are most definitely overcrowded. But there are lots of supplies and lots of agents doing the best they can. … In the men’s sleeping area, there are too many people.

“They can’t all lay down at once. So they’re all in one area. They’re getting three meals a day, they’re getting access to showers, bathrooms and everything else.”

The inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security released a report recently calling the conditions “a ticking time bomb.”

Vice President Mike Pence, who toured the facility earlier this month, told reporters, “I knew we’d see a system that is overcrowded. It’s overwhelmed and that’s why Congress has to act.”

Lankford said Border Patrol agents “were very clear that it wasn’t designed for holding that many people. It was designed to process people and send them to (Immigration and Custom Enforcement), but ICE needs open beds.”

A facility for minors was "extremely well done, extremely professional," Lankford said. Most minors were there for less than two weeks before being reconnected to parents who are already in the United States, he said.

Border patrol agents asked Lankford to secure more funding for ICE “to make sure they can do the detention here because they’re better suited for it.”

Lankford said another major problem at the border is a decades-old legal settlement that puts strict limits on how long children can be held and that treats people from Mexico differently than people from other countries.

People from 63 countries have sought to cross the southern border at McAllen, Lankford said. Mexicans can be turned away at the border, but people from other countries can make asylum requests that require a lengthy process.

©2019 The Oklahoman
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