The federal government will close three interim shelters set up on US military bases to house migrant children apprehended while crossing the border, according to media reports.
“We are able to take this step because we have proactively expanded capacity to care for children in standard shelters, which are significantly less costly facilities. At the same time, we have seen a decrease in the number of children crossing the southwest border,” HHS spokesman Kenneth Wolfe said, in a statement.
The federal government appended the shelters in May and June in response to the surge of unaccompanied children, mostly from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, flooding the US-Mexico border. In that time, the three military facilities have housed 7,700 children seeking refuge.
President Obama requested $3.7 billion in funds to house and process the waves of children, but lawmakers were unable to pass any new funding before leaving for a five-week recess at the end of last week. However, the decision to close the shelters on military bases had more to do with securing more appropriate shelters than lack of funding, Mr. Wolfe said, according to The New York Times.
The number of unaccompanied children seeking asylum has exploded in the past year; some 57,000 children have flocked to the US border from Central America since October. That stream has slowed in recent weeks, alleviating some of the pressure on the emergency shelter system – at least temporarily.
“There remains substantial uncertainty about the future flows of unaccompanied children,” Wolfe told the Los Angeles Times. “The three temporary shelters on military bases could be reopened for a limited time if the number of children increases significantly.”
Going forward, children will be placed in smaller shelters throughout the country. While some communities have balked at the idea of opening local shelters to migrant children, youth workers who have seen first hand the challenges that mass shelters pose for young children applaud the move.
“If you can get as many kids into the traditional shelters, the better," said Eric Tijerina, associate director of the immigrant children’s legal program at the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants in Arlington, Va., who worked with children at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, according to the Los Angeles Times. "It’s a much more pleasant environment for a child,” he added.
Children typically spend a month in a shelter before they are placed with sponsors, often parents or relatives already living within the US, before immigration courts can process their cases. That takes an average of 30 days, down from last month’s average of 35 days, the L.A. Times reported. It can be another year and a half before a child goes before an immigration judge, Judge Dana Leigh Marks, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, told the Monitor in a July interview.