Rep. Denny Heck is urging the Department of Health and Human Services to meet with local government officials before moving forward with a proposal to shelter hundreds of young immigrant detainees at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
It’s not clear if the department will agree to the meeting, according to Heck’s staff. A spokesman for the department was not familiar with the request Thursday afternoon.
“Local residents deserve to know what this change will require from the community, if anything, and how the community—including active-duty military personnel stationed on JBLM—can stay informed on the situation,” said Heck, a Democrat from Olympia. “While the level of support in our community for this plan varies, everyone should be given access to information.”
Lakewood Mayor Don Anderson last week sent letters to Heck and the Department of Health and Human Services posing questions about how the immigrants will be held in the South Sound if the federal government uses JBLM as a temporary shelter.
HHS is using three military bases to temporarily house a surge of minors attempting to cross the U.S. border with Mexico. Most of them are from Central America.
JBLM is under consideration to become a fourth shelter site.
At the other bases, civilian workers care for the minors until they can be connected with relatives or sponsors in the United States. Military service members do not provide for the health or security of the immigrant detainees at any of the bases, according to the Defense Department.
Federal officials say they do not have enough space to care for the minors. Up to 90,000 people under the age of 18 are expected to try to cross the border this year, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
“Unaccompanied children are subjecting themselves to serious risks to make the journey here and our Border Patrol stations are overcrowded to the breaking point,” Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell said Thursday at a Senate hearing.
President Obama this week requested $3.7 billion to deal with the crisis by stepping up border security and speeding judicial proceedings. Republicans have criticized him for conveying a mixed message on immigration that they believe has encouraged families to send their children north to America.
Heck and many Democrats view the surge in border crossings as a humanitarian crisis.
“These are not people coming here for a free ride,” U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said at a hearing Thursday in which she encouraged the Obama administration to treat the immigrants humanely.
“These are children, many of them only 7 or 8 years old, fleeing terrible violence in their home countries. They’re sent by desperate mothers and fathers who have had to look them in the eyes and literally tell them to run for their lives.”