The Obama administration is shutting down the three emergency shelters for illegal immigrant children it opened on military bases, health officials said Monday in another sign that the federal government is getting a handle on the surge of Central Americans trying to jump the U.S. border.
It’s a major reversal for the Health and Human Services Department, which a few weeks ago was considering 5,000 more beds on military bases and signed a $190 million deal with Baptist Child and Family Services to care for children at the facilities.
The shelter at Fort Sill in Oklahoma will be closed by the end of this week, and two others in California and Texas will shutter in two to eight weeks, the administration said.
“This is the right decision. Our military bases are no place to house detained children,” said Rep. Martha Roby, an Alabama Republican who led the charge against HHS plans to shelter children at federal facilities in her state.
Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, welcomed the announcement but said he would wait for proof because of mixed messages from the administration.
“Just a few weeks ago, they were talking about extending the DOD leases until January and increasing the capacity of children the bases should hold,” he said. “I will consider it a victory for our national security and Fort Sill once the Obama administration actually follows through on their word to end use of the facility by next week.”
Children will be sent to private shelters throughout the country, but the moves could rub raw nerves in neighborhoods where residents have raised protest.
More than 7,700 children went through the facilities at the three military bases, and HHS still has 5,500 children in its care, a spokesman said.
The department wouldn’t give a breakdown of the number of children at each facility and refused to release the locations of the approximately 100 private shelters with which it has contracts.
Some initial efforts, such as renting a shuttered college in Virginia, were blocked by local protests. The military bases seemed obvious choices because they could avoid local input.
HHS and Federal Emergency Management Agency officials asked for the space on military bases several months ago, when the surge of children from Central America was hitting crisis levels of 10,000 a month.
Even there, hiccups arose.
The Defense Department required the children to be screened and vaccinated for diseases at least seven days before they could be transferred onto base. That meant Homeland Security officials were holding the children for longer than the 72 hours allowed under law.
HHS spokesman Kenneth Wolfe said it’s cheaper to house the children at the private facilities under existing contracts than at the emergency shelters on military bases.
That cost could be a factor. President Obama lost his chance last week to get extra money from Congress when lawmakers adjourned for five weeks without approving any emergency spending.
Still, Mr. Wolfe said, there “remains substantial uncertainty” about the numbers crossing the border. Some border officials say a July and August slump could be reversed once cooler weather returns.
“In the near term, the three temporary shelters on military bases could be re-opened for a limited time if the number of children increases significantly,” Mr. Wolfe said.