Lauren Etter and Jennifer Oldham, Bloomberg, 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.
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.
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.
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.”