Still no decision on housing immigrant children in vacant JBLM housing

Staff writerJuly 6, 2014 

While local leaders wait for final word on whether Joint Base Lewis-McChord will be a temporary home for up to 600 children from Central America, one church group says it wants to help welcome the children to Washington, if they come.

“We’re trying to get people’s minds wrapped around the fact that these are kids, this a humanitarian issue,” said Rev. Abigail Vizcarra Perez, who represents the Hispanic ministries with the United Methodist Church. She covers four congregations in Tacoma.

The young, unaccompanied migrants have been held at the U.S.-Mexican border, creating a political challenge for the Obama administration. Three other American military bases are already hosting some children.

The local Methodists hope to advocate for the children if they come to JBLM, but it’s unclear how much they’d be able to do.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is taking the lead on coordinating care of the children, while three other federal agencies are trying to address their immediate needs. The agencies are unable to accept donations or volunteers to assist with the program, according to a statement on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website.

Despite that, Vizcarra Perez said their group is still going to try.

“We’re still in a holding pattern. It’s all just wait and see,” she said.

If it’s announced the children will come to Washington, Vizcarra Perez said they would reach out to members of the South Sound congressional delegation asking them to show support. They also want to find out the needs of the children, and could work to raise funds needed to bring family members to the state from elsewhere in the country to connect with the children, she said.

A team from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently visited JBLM to assess whether the South Sound installation should be one of several military bases that temporarily house minors from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Health and Human Services spokesman Kenneth Wolfe said last week the site is still being analyzed and a decision hasn’t been announced.

If JBLM is selected, military assets would not be used to bring the young immigrant detainees to Washington state. Contractors would be hired to help with their care, officials said, and the Department of Defense would be reimbursed for utility and other associated costs.

Health and Human Services is considering JBLM because the Defense Department included it on a list of military installations with available space to help the government handle the rush of Central American children that has overwhelmed facilities on the border.

So far, about 2,000 minors are being housed at military installations in California, Oklahoma and Texas. Each has a 120-day agreement to serve as a host site. Detainees spend an average of 35 days at the holding facilities before being placed with a relative or sponsor in the U.S. for the duration of the immigration process, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

If JBLM becomes a shelter site, it also would have a 120-day agreement, according to Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Thomas Crosson.

The number of unaccompanied minors attempting to cross the border has more than doubled over the past year. About 52,000 have crossed this federal fiscal year. The dramatic rise prompted Health and Human Services to declare it a humanitarian issue, citing concerns about young children arriving at the border without their parents, hungry, thirsty, exhausted and vulnerable.

Brynn Grimley: 253-597-8467 brynn.grimley@thenewstribune.com @bgrimley

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