- Associated Press - Saturday, July 12, 2014

FORT SILL, Okla. (AP) - As hundreds of immigrant children stay at a temporary shelter at the Fort Sill Army Post near Lawton, some Oklahoma leaders say they are concerned a broad agreement on the nation’s immigration policy won’t be reached this year.

Oklahoma has become a temporary home for unaccompanied Central American children flowing into the country. The latest crisis has prompted President Barack Obama to push for $3.7 billion in emergency funding, and several members of Oklahoma’s all-Republican congressional delegation say they’re taking a close look at it.

None expressed optimism that the latest crisis could serve as an impetus for broader immigration reform.

“I really don’t, because they’re not really related,” said Rep. Tom Cole, a Republican who represents the district that includes Lawton and Fort Sill and is a member of the Appropriations Committee that will closely scrutinize the funding request.

Cole said on Friday the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had requested expanded and longer use of military facilities through 2015 to shelter the youngsters, who also are being housed at military facilities in Texas and California.

Federal officials say the number of unaccompanied minors picked up since October now stands at 57,000, more than double what it was at the same time last year. They’re coming mostly from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, often fleeing gang violence.

Cole and other members of the delegation called for the children to be more expeditiously returned to their country of origin, which is something the White House initially supported but left out of its emergency spending proposal.

“I’m glad … for the president and White House spokesman to say they fully expect the majority of these young people to go home, but that’s just not been the case, and everybody in Central America knows that,” said Cole.

Because of a law passed by Congress in 2008 that requires court hearings for young migrants who arrive in this country from “noncontiguous countries,” the vast majority of the children at Fort Sill will be placed with a sponsor, usually a relative, and transferred to immigration court in that jurisdiction to begin deportation hearings.

Cole and U.S. Rep. James Lankford, the GOP nominee for the state’s open U.S. Senate seat, are among a growing chorus of House Republicans calling for extradition of those children more quickly.

“Until we start actually sending children back, there is no signal to those parents to stop sending them,” Lankford said.

Meanwhile, teenagers at Fort Sill continue to be processed through a three-story troop barracks that houses up to 1,200 kids at a time in 60-bed dormitories typically used for basic training for Army soldiers. Members of the media were allowed to tour the facility on Thursday for the first time since it opened June 14, although participants were heavily restricted and prohibited from taking photographs, asking questions or interacting with staff or the teens.

Dressed in brightly colored T-shirts and shorts, the children walked in orderly, single-file lines from building to building for various activities. A group of boys started chanting a marching cadence they learned from nearby troops, who march regularly in the area.

Girls inside one of the 60-bed dormitories played cards, board games and listened to pop music on the radio.

HHS officials conducting the media tour said children who arrive at the facility are provided with clothes, shoes, towels, and bed linens, and receive three meals a day, plus two snacks. They have access to bottled water, medical services, and various activities, including arts and crafts and classroom instruction. The barracks grounds is gated and surrounded by a six-foot, chain-link fence that is monitored 24 hours a day.

Operation of the Fort Sill shelter is contracted to San Antonio-based BCFS (formerly Baptist Christian Family Services), which also runs the shelter at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.

The number of children at Fort Sill at the end of the week was 1,160, with nearly 600 who already had been discharged. The average stay is about 15 days, HHS reported.


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