500 migrant children scheduled to arrive Tuesday at Fort Bliss

By CAITLIN M. KENNEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 30, 2021

WASHINGTON — Five hundred migrant children are scheduled to arrive Tuesday at Fort Bliss, Texas, to help mitigate overcrowding at detention facilities jammed with children who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border alone, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

“The children will be welcomed by staff, receive a brief medical check, provided needed clothing, toiletries, food and snacks, as well as a safe place to rest,” according to a HHS statement Tuesday.

The Pentagon approved a request last week from the Department of Health and Human Services to support the temporary housing of children at two Texas military bases: Fort Bliss, which is near El Paso, and Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland.

Fort Bliss has space to accommodate up to 5,000 beds and will shelter boys ages 13 to 17, according to HHS. A vacant dormitory at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland has been selected to support 350 beds. However, HHS nor the Pentagon has said how many children are expected to go to each site.

Children being sent to Fort Bliss will tested for the coronavirus before they arrive at the base, according to HHS. The children are then tested every three days while at the base and will follow health care guidelines for the virus. The boys will have access to sleeping areas, meals, toiletries, laundry, recreational activities and medical care, according to the statement. The children are overseen and cared for by HHS officials.

The U.S. border with Mexico has experienced rising numbers in migration, including unaccompanied children, since April due to violence, natural disasters, food insecurity, and poverty in Central America, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Children who are found alone by U.S. Border Patrol agents must be transferred to HHS within 72 hours. However, that is not always the case. On Tuesday, reporters were able to visit a border detention facility in Donna, Texas, where more than 4,000 people were living in a space meant for 250, according to The Associated Press. More than 2,000 children had been at the facility for more than 72 hours, including 39 who had been there for more than 15 days.

Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-Texas, tweeted Monday that he had visited Fort Bliss to see the facilities for the children. In the post, he is seen pointing at an area surrounded by green fencing with what appears to be five long white tents. Another photo of the area shows open space within the fencing.

Fort Bliss has provided land and access to the area for HHS officials, said Lt. Col. Allie Payne, a spokeswoman for the base. The site has soft-sided tent structures, water and electricity, she said.

The military support to HHS is expected to last until the end of year, according to the Pentagon.

During President Joe Biden’s first official news conference on Thursday, he said 1,000 children would be taken out of border patrol custody within the next week and put into safer facilities. He did not say whether they were going to Fort Bliss, Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland or another facility.

John Kirby, the chief Pentagon spokesman, said Tuesday that HHS has recently conducted a site visit of Camp Roberts, a National Guard base in central California, to determine whether it could be used as another location to temporarily house migrant children. There are no other requests from HHS for additional support, he said.

Twitter: @caitlinmkenney