Trump administration officials are eyeing several sites in Texas to erect tent cities that would house unaccompanied migrant children detained at the U.S.-Mexico border. This move is in response to the increasing number of children separated from their parents upon arrival in the United States under the administration’s zero tolerance immigration clampdown.
Officials from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which is responsible for housing children detained without parents or guardians, will soon visit Fort Bliss near El Paso, Texas to determine if the base can hold a tent city that would shelter between 1,500 and 5,000, according to McClatchy News Service.
HHS officials said they are also considering Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene and Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, both in Texas, as potential tent city sites.
"HHS will make the determination if any of the three sites assessed are suitable," an HHS official told McClatchy.
Some 650 children were separated from their parents in the weeks after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the family separation policy, in early May. And nearly 1,800 immigrant families were separated between October 2016 and February 2017. HHS, which houses roughly 10,000 children, is operating at 95 percent capacity.
Sessions, in a lengthy radio interview last week, defended the Trump administration’s family separation policy. The attorney general, prodded by conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, said he did not think children have a moral right to legal representation while detained. Sessions also said he believes children are being well guarded at detention centers, though he admitted he has not visited any HHS facilities.
Texas regulators this week found roughly 150 health violations at dozens of HHS shelters used to house immigrant children. Violations at the centers, operated by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), included inadequate supervision and untimely medical care, according to the Houston Chronicle.
U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), who represents El Paso, could not confirm that HHS was weighing Fort Bliss as potential tent city site, but he criticized the idea as misguiuded.
"This is absolutely the wrong thing for our country to be doing, and I would hate to see us continue this," he told the Texas Tribune. "The prospect of building tents or using resources at military installations is just wrong."
Six Texas state legislators, all Democrats from the El Paso area, sent a letter on Tuesday to Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen M. Nielsen and ORR director Scott Lloyd. The missive voiced concern about the potential harm to children’s mental health by using a military base as a temporary shelter.
"The clear purpose of military bases is for armed services operations and housing of military personnel, not for housing immigrant children forcibly taken from their parents," the letter read.