A child wears a bracelet marked with a number that indicates his place in line to submit his request for U.S. asylum, inside a shelter at Bachilleres gymnasium in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Feb. 19, 2019.
A child wears a bracelet marked with a number that indicates his place in line to submit his request for U.S. asylum, inside a shelter at Bachilleres gymnasium in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Feb. 19, 2019.

WASHINGTON - The Defense Department is reviewing a number of military bases to find a location that can house up to 5,000 unaccompanied migrant children as the U.S. braces for a surge of people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border this spring.

The Department of Health and Human Services submitted the request for space late last week, as Homeland Security leaders warned that tens of thousands of families are crossing the border each month. That flow, said Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, will grow worse this spring as the weather gets better.

FILE - Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Az
FILE - Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in New York, Sept. 12, 2018.

Meanwhile, HHS Secretary Alex Azar told lawmakers at a House budget hearing Tuesday that he had had no advance knowledge of the Trump administration's “zero tolerance” policy, which resulted in hundreds of migrant children being separated from their parents and placed in his department's custody last spring. Had he known, Azar said he hopes he would have raised concerns.

The Pentagon last summer approved the use of Goodfellow Air Force Base near San Angelo, Texas, for an HHS request to accommodate up to 20,000 children. Legal and environmental requirements were finalized, but HHS never came back with a formal request to actually use the base. Officials said that the extra space wasn't needed, and there also were concerns that HHS didn't have the money to construct needed housing and other support facilities at the base.

Army Lt. Col. Jamie Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said Tuesday that since this HHS request is smaller than last year's, the department is doing another review. It's unclear if the Pentagon will once again propose Goodfellow as the location or if there is another military base that may already have facilities that could accommodate the smaller-sized group.

HHS is now asking for $1.3 billion in the 2020 fiscal year budget and the creation of a contingency fund of up to $2 billion.

“We have requested quite a lot, but at the rate we are going with the kids coming across the border, it is quite a burden financially,” Azar told the House Energy & Commerce Committee.

Immigrant children are led by staff in single file
Immigrant children are led by staff in single file between tents at a detention facility next to the Mexican border in Tornillo, Texas, June 18, 2018.

Under questioning from Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., Azar told lawmakers that he was not consulted about last year's “zero tolerance” policy that resulted in immigration authorities separating several thousand migrant children from their parents. Once the families were separated, the children were considered “unaccompanied.”

HHS has traditionally been responsible for providing temporary shelter to unaccompanied migrant children crossing the border. 

“I was not aware that that policy was under consideration when the attorney general announced it,” Azar said. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions made the announcement in early April of last year.

Azar said he hopes he would have raised “significant child welfare issues” had he been consulted.

His comments shed light on a chaotic period during which President Donald Trump was forced to roll back the family separation policy in the face of strong public disapproval and orders from a federal judge. It fell to HHS to carry out the judge's directive reuniting families 

Congressional investigators have previously found that other government departments and agencies were surprised by the “zero tolerance” decision, but Azar has not generally discussed his own role in public. He said it took a while to “connect the dots” and realize the impact on his department.

Much of his early information came from following press reports, Azar said. “I was very disturbed by it,” he said.

Under questioning from Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., Azar said he was disheartened that senior officials in his department who apparently had an early inkling that migrant families were being separated did not immediately alert him.

“I’m disappointed I did not know that,” he said.