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Pentagon Assessing Bases to House Migrants


FILE - This Sept. 9, 2014 file photo shows cars wait to enter Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas.

The Pentagon is doing environmental assessments at two military bases to assess their suitability for housing migrant families who face charges after crossing the U.S./Mexico border illegally, a spokesman has told VOA.

But the spokesman, Army Lt Col Jamie Davis, added that no ground would be broken to build facilities at Fort Bliss and Goodfellow Air Force Base until a "notice of intent" has been signed by the Departments of Homeland Security (DHS) and Health and Human Services (HHS). Fort Bliss is in the U.S. states of Texas and New Mexico while Goodfellow is located in Texas.

The Trump administration has asked the U.S. military to shelter thousands of undocumented migrants, including unaccompanied children who illegally crossed the U.S. southern border.

During the Obama administration, the military housed nearly 16,000 unaccompanied migrant children on five military bases after they were detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Mark Greenberg, a former acting assistant secretary of HHS who worked in the department's Administration for Children and Families during the Obama administration, said his department has asked the military for help various times after "large, sudden, unexpected increases in the number of children" arriving at the border.

At least 11,800 migrant children are currently in custody at about 100 standard shelters in 14 states, according to HHS. When those beds fill up, costly temporary shelters must be set up in order to help with the overflow.

"From the headlines, people sometimes think that we are facing a very large increase in border crossings. In fact, the numbers in 2017 were the lowest they had been since 1971," Greenberg said. "They are on track to be higher this year, but still low in historical terms."

However, a migrant population once principally made up of Mexican adults has now seen large increases of families and unaccompanied children from Central America.

Family units grew from 3 percent of all apprehensions at the border in 2012 to 14 percent of all border apprehensions in 2014 to 24 percent of all apprehensions so far in 2018. In addition, the number of unaccompanied child detainees has increased from 7 percent of apprehensions in 2012 to 13 percent this year.

Standard migrant shelters are all subject to state licensing requirements, but facilities on federal property, including military bases, are not.

DHS, which will be using Fort Bliss to shelter detained migrant families, has specifically requested the construction of "semi-separate, soft-sided camp facilities capable of sheltering up to 4,000 people" or tents at three separate installations.

HHS will be using Goodfellow Air Force Base to house unaccompanied migrant children caught illegally entering the United States.

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    Carla Babb

    Carla is VOA's Pentagon correspondent covering defense and international security issues. Her datelines include Ukraine, Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Korea.

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