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Malmstrom AFB under review as shelter for unaccompanied migrant children

Unaccompnied migrant children at a temporary shelter in Homestead, Florida. (Associated Press photo/Wilfredo Lee)

(The Electric) The Great Falls City Commission has been notified that Malmstrom Air Force Base is being considered for possible use as a temporary shelter for unaccompanied migrant children during the upcoming hurricane season in the southern U.S.

The assessment will be conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services with support from the U.S. Department of Defense.

HHS notified the commission Thursday that it will look at Malmstrom “for use as a temporary emergency evacuation shelter for unaccompanied alien children. If selected, Malmstrom Air Force Base would remain unoccupied but available for use if there is an urgent need for additional shelter space, e.g. natural disaster impacting operating capacity” of a shelter, according to the email.

In the email from Elsa Ramirez, acting regional director and executive officer for HHS Region 8, Malmstrom and Fort Sill Army Base in Oklahoma are being considered for temporary sites for the Office of Refugee Resettlement in HHS’ Administration for Children and Families.

Fort Sill is being considered for use a as a temporary emergency influx shelter in advance of hurricane season for evacuation purposes in the event of natural disaster, according to the email.

Fort Sill served as a temporary emergency influx shelter for unaccompanied migrant children in 2014, under the Obama administration, as a result of a migration surge at that time.

Children age 17 and under who are unaccompanied by parents or other legal guardians and who have no lawful immigration status in the United States and apprehended by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security are transferred to the care and custody of ORR, according to the email.

ORR is legally required to provide for the care and custody of all UAC referred to ORR until they are released to appropriate sponsors, usually a parent or relative, while their immigration cases proceed.

In April, Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan approved a request from HHS to look for housing options, facilities or land, on military bases for up to 5,000 migrant children, according to a Stars and Stripes report.

The email from HHS to the City Commission on Thursday indicated that ORR is “facing a dramatic spike in referrals” of unaccompanied migrant children.

So far this fiscal year, ORR had received about 32,000 referrals of unaccompanied migrant children as of March 30, which was in increase of almost 50 percent over the previous fiscal year, according to the email.

“If this rate of referrals continues, ORR will care for the largest number of UAC in the program’s history in FY 2019. Based on the anticipated growth pattern in referrals of UAC from DHS to HHS, HHS is preparing for the need for high bed capacity to continue,” according to the email.

The Homeland Security Act of 2002 transferred responsibility for the care and placement of unaccompanied migrant children from the Commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service to the Director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, according to the program website.

“Since then, ORR has cared for more than 340,000 children, incorporating child welfare values as well as the principles and provisions established by the Flores Agreement in 1997, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 and its reauthorization acts, the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2005 and 2008,” according to the program website.

DoD officials will join  HHS staff as they tour  vacant properties available for potential future use. HHS will make the determination if they will use the sites for their operations, according to the email.

This effort will have no impact on DoD’s ability to conduct its primary missions nor on military readiness, according to HHS, and the department’s use of vacant DoD facilities is on a full-reimbursable basis under the Economy Act.

HHS indicated in the email that it will keep local and congressional officials informed during the process.

“Sen. Daines is requesting more information on this issue. This serves as a reminder that we have a crisis at our southern border – we must fix the problem and secure our borders,” according to Daine’s office in a statement to The Electric.

Rep. Greg Gianforte said in a statement to The Electric, “There is a humanitarian and national security crisis at our southern border. The solution to the crisis is simple: we must fix our broken immigration system.”

HHS said in their email that the agency will keep local and congressional officials informed during this assessment and selection process.

More information about the program is available here.