DENVER (AP) – The U.S. government plans to open three new shelters in three states to house unaccompanied migrant children as officials brace for another influx of young Central American immigrants crossing the border.
The temporary shelters in Colorado, Florida and New Mexico, all located on federal property, are in addition to shelters that opened outside Dallas earlier this month to deal with the growing number of immigrants expected in the spring and summer of 2016.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services plans to house up to 1,000 children in a renovated warehouse in the sprawling Federal Center complex in the Denver suburb of Lakewood. Another 800 will be housed at a Job Corps site in Homestead, Florida, and 400 more at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, Mark Weber, a spokesman for HHS, which is responsible for overseeing the children's care, said Thursday.
The new planned shelters, combined with the camps opened in Rockwall and Ellis counties in Texas this month, represent a 42 percent increase over the 8,400 permanent shelter beds the agency previously relied on in 12 states mainly along the Mexican border.
Children in the shelters, most of them between ages 14 and 17, stay an average of 32 days. They receive schooling and medical care on site until they can be placed with sponsors as they wait to hear whether they will be allowed to stay in the U.S. or will be deported.
Officials in Colorado and Florida were quietly informed Wednesday about the decision to open the shelter there. Last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter directed Holloman Air Force Base officials to get ready to house immigrant children in a vacant building once used by the 4th Space Surveillance Squadron starting in January.
Children could arrive at the Florida facility as soon as February. The Colorado warehouse still needs to be renovated and isn't expected to open until April.
The federal government is trying to avoid a repeat of the summer of 2014, when so many children crossed the border into the U.S. from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador that they were forced to stay in Border Patrol facilities, which aren't designed to house children. That also diverted officers from securing the border, even though the law requires children under 17 who enter the country alone to be turned over to HHS.
"This is out of an abundance of caution," Weber said of the new temporary shelters.
It's not yet known how much renovating and operating the new shelters will cost, Weber said. The permanent shelters cost $223 per bed per day to operate, and the temporary locations cost more, he said.
Border crossings haven't returned to 2014 levels, but the numbers began to pick up again in June and have remained high even though migration usually slows down in the fall and winter.
According to the U.S. Border Patrol, 10,588 unaccompanied children crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in October and November, more than double the 5,129 who crossed during the same two months last year. The number of family members crossing together has nearly tripled, to 12,505.
In an interview on "Bill Bennett's Morning in America" before Christmas, House Speaker Paul Ryan said officials want to be prepared for another influx and place children in the "least restrictive environment possible."
"We're worried that there may be another episode on the border this coming summer and we want to be prepared for that," Ryan said.
Such an episode would come in the midst of a presidential election that has already been dominated by concerns over immigration and border security.
U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, a Democrat who represents the swing district where the Colorado shelter will be located, downplayed the potential impact on the surrounding community since the children won't be allowed to leave the site. While candidates may debate immigration policy, he said officials still have to deal with the fact that these children have managed to end up in the U.S. and have been apprehended.
"It's a sad situation, but you have to step up and acknowledge the reality of the situation and provide these services," he said.
Lakewood Mayor Adam Paul said he wished the government had waited until after the holidays to announce the shelter, giving him and other leaders more time to learn about it and be ready to answer questions from the community.
"We're just going to demand that they communicate with us," he said.