By Alejandro Lazo
The Trump administration aims to build new permanent shelters for unaccompanied child migrants in California, Virginia and Florida, drawing criticism from local officials opposed to the president’s immigration detention policies.
The federal government is planning shelter space for as many as 1,370 unaccompanied children in the three states, according to documents made public earlier this month and recently highlighted by some irate Democrats.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement had about 7,000 unaccompanied minors in its care as of Aug. 25. The agency, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services and is charged with sheltering young migrants who come to the U.S. alone, takes custody of such children from border authorities. Adults traveling with children are handled by U.S. Customs and Border Protection authorities and are sheltered separately from unaccompanied minors.
Migrant shelters have become a lightning rod in immigration debates. Democratic lawmakers have decried conditions of some Border Patrol detention facilities that the Department of Homeland Security last month deemed overcrowded, unsanitary and lacking basic amenities. The Trump administration is seeking space for the record number of families and children who cross the border illegally and typically request asylum, most from Central America. The influx has slowed this summer as Mexico, under pressure by President Trump, cracked on down on migrants and tightened security along its southern border.
Shelters for unaccompanied minors, like the ones proposed in California, Virginia and Florida, have faced their own revelations of poor oversight and abuse, including forcing children to take psychotropic medications at a shelter in Texas, according to a 2018 lawsuit. Attorneys representing the ORR said authorities there hadn’t flagged any violations of Texas state law, and that the drugs were administered on an emergency basis. The court rejected those arguments.
An ORR shelter for teenagers in Texas opened last month but didn’t have enough minors to continue operating and quickly shut down.
An ORR spokesman said the proposed shelters in California, Florida and Virginia are slated to open in spring 2020. He said they would provide more long-term capacity to reduce the need for temporary shelters should the number of unaccompanied child migrants increase again.
Emergency facilities aren’t licensed by state agencies for child care, which critics say allows operators contracted by the federal government to bypass standard oversight. The ORR spokesman said the proposed facilities would be privately operated and state-licensed. He added that their locations were chosen in part for their proximity to more people eligible to serve as sponsors who could take custody of migrant children from the government.
Rep. Mark Takano was one of four congressional Democrats from California’s Inland Empire—a populous region in Riverside and San Bernardino Counties, east of Los Angeles—who officially protested the shelter space being scouted in the area, saying they weren’t consulted on the plans.
“My community is outraged,” Mr. Takano said. “We have people very, very concerned. They do not want to see these emblems of cruelty.”
He said he hasn’t received a response from the Trump administration.
The proposed California shelter would accommodate roughly 430 children who would be cared for around the clock by a staff of about the same number, according to the public documents. The lease requirements call for bedrooms, bathrooms, classrooms, multipurpose areas, dining services, administrative offices and about 2 acres of outdoor recreation areas.
In a letter to the ORR this month, the four lawmakers said they were shocked to learn of the agency’s plans to put the shelter in their region, asking why the agency wasn’t prioritizing “community-based residential care.”
Mr. Takano said his criticisms of the proposed shelters are related to broader concerns about the Trump administration’s immigration policies, including a move last week to start indefinitely detaining families that cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. The move, which will likely face court challenges, would supersede a decades-old court settlement limiting how long migrant children can be detained and setting standards for their care.
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