By Lauren Etter and Jennifer Oldham
February 16, 2016
Amid a resurgence in the pace of unaccompanied migrant children crossing the U.S. border, President Barack Obama is facing angry opposition as he searches for places to house them temporarily.
The administration is attempting to assemble a network of shelters on military bases and other federal facilities to lodge thousands of children awaiting immigration proceedings after fleeing violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. That’s hit a nerve in communities, some in crucial presidential swing states such as Colorado and Florida, where potential facilities were announced without community input and later scrapped.
“I don’t want a military base to be an orphanage,” said Veronica Kemeny, president of the Republican Veterans of Florida, who lives in Panama City near an Air Force Base that was named as a potential shelter.
“I don’t want a military base to be an orphanage.”
Since Oct. 1, 20,000 unaccompanied children have been apprehended at the U.S. border, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. That’s compared with nearly 70,000 in all of 2014 when the humanitarian crisis was at its worst. The influx that year stunned unprepared officials, who crammed children into school gymnasiums and on concrete floors of Border Patrol stations.
The recent surge of unaccompanied minors is the latest controversy surrounding Obama’s immigration policies that have angered Democrats and Republicans and alienated Hispanics, a critical voting bloc 27 million strong. There’s a push in Congress to see the children deported, a position that follows Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump’s call to build a border wall to keep out undocumented immigrants. A separate bill sponsored by Texas Representative John Carter, also a Republican, would prohibit them from being kept at military installations.
“They’re politicizing the kids,” said Representative Luis Gutiérrez, a Democrat from Illinois. “They’re saying, ‘Let’s talk about what we feel like are issues that are going to encourage Republicans to come out to vote in the upcoming election.”’
Democrat Hillary Clinton distanced herself from Obama after he ordered raids targeting undocumented Central Americans. Obama has formally deported more people than any other U.S. president. A congressional investigation found that the federal government had delivered some unaccompanied children into the hands of human traffickers amid a rush to process them.
“We want the Democrats to realize that there’s a political cost to some of these Obama actions,” said Lynn Tramonte, deputy director at America’s Voice, a Washington immigration reform group. “Democrats cannot afford to leave Latino votes on the table.”
Under a 2008 law, unaccompanied children from countries other than Mexico and Canada are granted access to the U.S. pending their asylum claim. In December, Health and Human Services, which cares for them until they can be placed with relatives, announced it would establish temporary shelters to avoid a crisis like the one two years ago. The first such facilities were to include a total of 2,500 beds at a federal building near Denver, a Job Corps site in Homestead, Florida, and an Air Force base outside Alamogordo, New Mexico.
Ten additional military bases were placed under review by the government. Six were dropped as potential sites last week, leaving under consideration bases in Illinois, Pennsylvania, Alabama and California, according to Defense Department spokesman Tom Crosson.
“As a nation, we must secure our borders and enforce our immigration laws consistent with our priorities,” said White House spokesman Peter Boogaard. “At all times, we endeavor to do this consistent with American values, and basic principles of decency, fairness, and humanity.”
In Colorado, a political prize that Obama visited 11 times in 2012, residents and elected officials demanded answers from the Health and Human Services Department about how the government planned to convert and manage parts of a federal complex outside Denver to shelter as many as 1,000 migrant children by April.
More than 3,000 people joined an hour-long call Jan. 19 with federal officials to discuss the plan. Residents asked who would pay for the shelter, how long it would remain, where children would be placed and how the federal government would ensure they didn’t present a security risk.
“I respect the fact that the children have to go somewhere,” said Mike Coffman, a Republican congressman from Aurora, Colorado. “The fundamental problem to me is the Obama administration has brought this problem on themselves.”
Last week, HHS abandoned plans to use the Denver campus, saying architects and engineers concluded that necessary renovations would be too expensive and time consuming.
Democratic U.S. Representative Ed Perlmutter, who represents the area, said in a news release that he wished the government would have done a more thorough review of the site before notifying the public.
“After personally visiting the site, it quickly became evident that setting up a facility of this magnitude was going to be a monumental undertaking,” Perlmutter said.
In Ohio, Republican Governor and presidential candidate John Kasich in December denied requests by the Obama administration to use the state’s National Guard facilities to house children. The governor has been an outspoken critic of the government’s handling of the children since last year after a federal grand jury indicted a group of people for trafficking Guatemalan children into slave-labor conditions on an Ohio egg farm.
“The federal government has attempted to increase capacity and push people through the system too quickly, causing unintended consequences,” said Ohio adjutant general Mark Bartman in an e-mail declining the administration’s request. “The Governor and I have concerns about the federal government’s ability to handle the increased number.”
In Florida, before it was crossed it off the list last week, Obama’s plan to house children at Tyndall Air Force Base outside Panama City had turned into a political fight in a heated congressional race featuring two Republicans trying to unseat a Democratic incumbent.
In Alabama, U.S. Representative Martha Roby, a Republican whose seat is being challenged, has vowed to fight the use of an Air Force Base in her district.
“It is entirely inappropriate to house illegal immigrants at this or other active military installations,” Roby said in a January letter to the Obama administration. The military’s “mission is challenging enough without the added responsibility of housing, feeding and securing detainees.”
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