Faced with tens of thousands of children crossing the border alone in 2014, in what President Barack Obama deemed a “humanitarian situation,” the government temporarily housed them on three military bases, including one in San Antonio.
Now President Donald Trump’s administration is considering doing so again, eyeing several in Texas. But this time the need is fueled largely by the White House’s own controversial new policy to criminally prosecute parents illegally entering the country and taking away their children.
“The government is rendering kids, who come with parents, unaccompanied,” said Jennifer Podkul, director of policy at the advocacy group Kids in Need of Defense. “They have manufactured a crisis.”
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Attorney General Jeff Sessions said last week the government’s goal is to prosecute anyone crossing the border illegally, an enormous undertaking in a federal court system already swamped by such offenses. He said he would send more U.S. attorneys and judges to aid the effort.
“We are not going to let this country be invaded,” he said. “If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law.”
During the Obama administration, undocumented parents who crossed the border with children were typically detained with their children, processed and then released with instructions to appear at a future date at an immigration proceeding, during which most made claims for political asylum. They were not criminally charged with crossing the border.
Trump derided this practice during the 2016 presidential campaign as “catch and release” because many undocumented immigrants, he said, simply disappeared and remained in the country illegally. He vowed to stop that practice.
The ramped-up prosecutions will force thousands more underaged children into government custody. With their parents in federal prison, minors are considered unaccompanied and transferred to protective care under the Department of Health and Human Services, which keeps them until they can be placed with an adult relative or transitioned to more permanent foster care.
Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman with the agency’s Administration for Children and Families, said its shelters have enough bed space for 10,846 children. Those shelters currently house adults and children and are at 90 percent capacity.
He said in a statement that its program“requires routinely evaluating the needs and capacity of an existing network of approximately 100 shelters in 14 states. Additional properties with existing infrastructure are routinely being identified.”
The Department of Homeland Security confirmed one possibility is Goodfellow AFB in San Angelo. Dyess AFB near Abilene and the U.S Army’s Fort Bliss in El Paso have also been floated as options, according to the Washington Post.
Oscar Balladares, a spokesman for Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, which housed migrant children in 2014, said it has no vacancies right now. The base has a large stock of dormitories built in the 1960s, but they are either being used or under renovation.
Though overall border crossings are at their lowest in decades, nearly 14,000 families and children, many of them seeking asylum from Central America, were detained in April, reaching levels last seen during Obama’s administration.
At the height of that child immigration crisis, about 10,600 unaccompanied children and 16,300 families arrived in June 2014 alone. Bases in Oklahoma, Texas and California were used to house nearly 6,800 unaccompanied children over a period of several months, Wolfe said.
Podkul, from Kids in Need of Defense, said the government sent older children to the bases who they knew could quickly be placed with an adult sponsor, usually a relative already in the United States, which applies to the vast majority of children coming here alone. Most of them are being sent to the U.S. to be reunited with a family member.
Jeny Patricia Figueroa Fernandez, 27, and her 3-year-old daughter, Dolores, wait as U.S. Border Patr… – Jerry Lara /San Antonio Express-News Three-year-old Adriana Janiz looks at her dad, Ariel Benancio Janiz Rivera, 37, while they line up M… – Jerry Lara /San Antonio Express-News
Jeny Patricia Figueroa Fernandez, 27, and her 3-year-old daughter, Dolores, wait as U.S. Border Patrol Supervisory Agent Christian Alvarez interviews other immigrants May 10 near the Anzalduas International Bridge in Mission. A group of six from Honduras, including Fernandez, turned themselves into agents soon after crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico.
“It was an emergency facility,” she said. “They didn’t hold kids for longer than a few weeks because of licensing issues.”
Now, children will be separated from their parents, which could make it more difficult to place them with relatives, she said, meaning longer stays at bases not licensed for child care.
“The person who would be the most likely sponsor is now sitting in U.S. marshal custody because of criminal prosecution,” Podkul said.
She said the agency in charge of children, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, last month entered into a tentative written agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to share information about relatives or other sponsors in the U.S. who agree to take in the children. In the past, that information was not used for enforcement purposes.
“The government is dumping all these kids into (federal care) who shouldn’t be there in the first place and scaring sponsors from coming forward,” she said.
Federal officials have struggled for several years to manage the increase of Central American families, the fastest-growing demographic at the southern border.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told senators in testimony this week that families with children and unaccompanied minors made up just 10 percent of apprehensions five years ago, Today, they account for 40 percent of those detained by border agents, she said.
A decades-old federal court settlement prevents the prolonged detention of children.
Until Trump’s new policy was announced, most parents with no serious records who were caught crossing illegally with their children were not charged with the crime, which is a misdemeanor for first-time violators. The sheer number of offenders meant prosecutors typically prioritized immigrants with more serious criminal histories.
Families were instead kept in residential detention centers and either deported together or released to fight their immigration cases.
But critics complain many families don’t show up at court hearings if they are freed.
Soon after taking office, Trump threatened to separate parents and children at the border, sending the number coming here plummeting. Frustrated by their rising arrivals last summer, however, the administration began ramping up the prosecutions of parents, forcing the removal of their children and allowing adults to be detained until they are deported.
Nielsen has argued Americans who commit crimes are also taken from their children.
“That’s no different than what we do every day in every part of the United States when an adult of a family commits a crime,” she said last week. “You will be incarcerated by police and thereby separated from your family.”
Advocates say immigrant parents are not reunited with their children after their criminal sentence, which is usually just a few days or weeks. Instead they are placed in civil detention centers and sometimes even quickly deported without their children.
“Reunification after these kinds of separations are very difficult,” said Michelle Brané, executive director of the migrant rights program at the Women’s Refugee Commission, a national advocacy group. “Even finding each other after separation is exceedingly difficult.”
It involves coordination between the departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services, which Brané said do not systematically track such separations or coordinate with each other.
Supporters argue that prosecuting parents prevents others from bringing their children on the dangerous journey north.
“Part of it is to provide a message of deterrence also to people who are attempting to enter the country illegally and exploit this gap in our immigration laws,” said Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican. “If you simply catch people and let them go and they succeed in melting into the great American landscape, then they’ve basically gamed the system.”
He said temporarily housing such children on military bases made sense.
“I would assume they would use federal property where they could house people in a humane and appropriate sort of way, and so a military base would seem to fit that description,” he said.
Kevin Diaz and Sig Christenson contributed to this report.