The Trump administration is considering housing children who cross the border illegally at several different military installations, including three in Texas.
The Department of Health and Human Services has not officially announced the effort, but messages obtained by the Washington Post show that federal officials plan to visit four military installations across Texas and Arkansas in the coming weeks to evaluate whether they can house children.
The Army’s Fort Bliss in El Paso, Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo and Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene are in consideration, as is Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas.
The conversation over undocumented minors comes during a larger effort from the Trump administration to crack down on illegal immigration and respond to a reported increase in people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border without authorization.
But immigrant rights advocates and lawmakers from border communities argue that placing minors at military installations represents a misguided effort from the president to militarize the border.
“It’s absolutely tragic,” said Mario Carrillo, the Texas director for America's Voice. “Putting children into military bases is akin to internment camps. It really shows the true depravity of this administration’s immigration policies.”
In April, Trump mobilized thousands of National Guard troops to the border to serve in support roles for Border Patrol agents already working on the border. His administration also has intensified its efforts to prosecute people who cross the U.S. Mexico border illegally.
"If you cross the border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It's that simple," Attorney General Jeff Sessions said at a news conference in early May. "If you smuggle illegal aliens across our border, then we will prosecute you. If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you. And that child may be separated from you as required by law."
The threat of separating families at the border also has rattled opponents of the president’s border-security tactics.
"If we stop that practice, we could stop talking about warehousing children," Lee Gelernt, deputy director for the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, said in a statement.
Minors under 18 years old who cross the border without an adult or those who are separated from their family by the government would be housed at the military bases if the Trump administration moves forward with its plan.
Unaccompanied minors who enter the United States illegally are put in the custody of the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is under the umbrella of the Department of Health and Human Services. Minors are then placed in state-licensed facilities.
The Administration for Children and Families at the Department of Health and Human Services said it operates 100 shelters for minors in 14 different states.
"Additional properties with existing infrastructure are routinely being identified and evaluated by federal agencies as potential locations for temporary sheltering,” the administration said in a statement.
President Donald Trump talks with reporters as he gets a briefing on border wall prototypes, Tuesday, March 13, 2018, in San Diego.Associated Press/Evan Vucci
In 2016, Fort Bliss housed several hundred minors who had entered the country illegally in a temporary shelter at the Doña Ana Range Complex. The shelter housed about 500 immigrant minors.
U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, said he visited the minors who were living at the temporary shelter and added that the people tasked with taking care of them “do a great job.”
However, O’Rourke said military installations should not be in the position of having to care for minors in the first place.
“We should not be separating children from their parents,” O’Rourke said. “I think it could be deeply damaging to the children, to those families and it is not in keeping with the best traditions of this country."
He said: “El Paso has a lot to offer, the least of which is military housing for kids.”
Most unaccompanied minors who enter the custody of the federal government are from Guatemala, followed by El Salvador and Honduras, according to data from the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
An email obtained by the Washington Post said visits to these bases are preliminary assessments and "no decisions have been made at this time.”
Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights, said deployment of the National Guard to the border followed by conversations about housing children at military installations set a dangerous precedent.
"It's just expanding this idea of militarization and the use of military resources for civilian enforcement," he said. "I think that breaks with a very long enforcement tradition in the United States."
Veronica Escobar, the Democratic nominee in the race for El Paso’s congressional seat, also criticized the proposal and said it is part of the Trump administration’s “Draconian strategy of using family separation as a deterrent” to people seeking asylum in the United States.
“It’s also part of a pattern with the president, a pattern of pandering to his base so he can look tough on immigration,” Escobar said. “The truth is that while the numbers of refugees is up, those numbers ebb and flow annually and are still at historic lows.”
There was an increase in apprehensions along the country’s southwestern border in March, a jump that prompted Trump to mobilize the National Guard to the border.
In March, officers on the border apprehended 37,393 people, an increase from earlier months. Between October and February of this year, the average number of monthly apprehensions was about 27,000.
Randy Capps, the director of research for U.S. Programs at the Migration Policy Institute, said in an April interview that the spike in apprehensions could indicate that border crossings will fall back to their normal seasonal patterns.
There was a steady decline in apprehensions on the southwestern border between December 2016 and April 2017, but there was an increase in apprehensions during those same months in previous years, according to statistics from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
©2018 the El Paso Times (El Paso, Texas). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.