Amid budget crisis, Army base considered for unaccompanied migrant children

By Graham Kates

/ CBS News

Life inside the Homestead facility

As the agency responsible for housing unaccompanied migrant minors faces what it calls an "emergency" funding crisis over the swelling numbers of children in its care, its personnel Wednesday are touring an Army base in Georgia to potentially use for its next large holding facility.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) confirmed to CBS News that officials are meeting with Defense Department (DoD) personnel to tour vacant space at Fort Benning Wednesday.

"This effort will have no impact on DoD's ability to conduct its primary missions nor on military readiness," the agency said in a statement.

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The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) is required by law to house migrant children who are not accompanied by parents when apprehended by the Department of Homeland Security. According to agency statistics, ORR took in 40,900 children during the first seven months of the current fiscal year, an increase of 57 percent from last year.

As a result, the agency says it is in dire financial straits. In May, HHS asked Congress for an emergency infusion of nearly $2.9 billion, and it has since begun cutting all but essential services.

HHS confirmed to CBS News that this month it is not offering the majority of education, legal services and recreation typically provided to children in its custody. Mark Weber, a spokesperson for the agency said in a phone call Wednesday that the agency is required by law to take these steps.

"Given that we know that we are going to run out of funding, we are required to take some steps required by the Antideficiency Act, and that means scaling back funding for things like education, lawyers, recreational activities that are not essential to protecting life and property," Weber said.

The agency's tour of Fort Benning is in accordance with that mandate, Weber said. Even as the agency faces funding issues, it is still required to plan for more children to be referred to its care.

"Given our capacity issues right now, we need to have beds so that we can keep getting kids into ORR shelters, versus Border Patrol facilities," Weber said.

Senator Roy Blunt, R-Mo., reportedly struck a similarly dire tone in discussing the issue on Tuesday. Blunt, the chairman of the Senate Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee, warned that "there is no money to take care of these kids," according to Roll Call.

In a statement to CBS News, Connecticut Democratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro, Chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, said she supports funding the program, but wants greater protections to be implemented for children.

"I am ready to ensure HHS has the funding it needs to care for unaccompanied children during this humanitarian crisis, but there must be proper protections in place to ensure these kids are well taken care of," DeLauro said. "Recent reports indicate the Administration has violated the Flores Agreement, which protects children from being detained for more than 20 days and sets standards for facilities they can be placed in."

The Fort Benning site would be the second location out of more than 160 shelters nationwide to be located on federal land. The only currently operational unaccompanied minor facility not overseen by state authorities, in Homestead, Florida, has faced withering criticism from advocates and lawyers.

On Tuesday, a trio of Democratic Florida lawmakers called for its closure, citing a recent legal filing that included testimonials from 76 children housed in the Homestead facility. The filing described children being housed at the facility for months on end, often in fear that breaking small rules, such as not finishing meals or hugging children, might affect their chances of being reunited with family outside the massive facility's walls.

"The Trump administration must finally provide these young people with humane living conditions that treat them with dignity, ensure basic human rights, and provide comprehensive support and services," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz in a press release sent by her office along with Reps. Donna Shalala and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell.

First published on June 5, 2019 / 11:47 AM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Graham Kates

Graham Kates is an investigative reporter covering criminal justice, privacy issues and information security for CBSNews.com.

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