Up to 1,000 immigrant children to be temporarily housed in Lakewood, Colorado
The facility at the Federal Center will be the largest of its kind in the country
Two young girls watch a World Cup soccer match on a television from their holding area where hundreds of mostly Central American immigrant children are being processed and held at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center on Wednesday, June 18, 2014, in Nogales, Ariz. (Ross D. Franklin, Associated Press file)
The facility, which will be the largest of its kind in the country, is expected to open in April and will be run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
"It is the law for us to take care of these children, and that is what we will continue to do," Mark Weber, a Health and Human Services spokesman, said Wednesday evening.
The children, unaccompanied minors 17 and younger from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras who have crossed into the United States to escape grinding poverty or ruthless child traffickers in their home countries, will not attend local schools and will "not integrate into the local community," according to the agency.
"They remain under staff supervision at all times," the agency said.
The average stay for a child at a shelter like the one being readied in Lakewood is 32 days, Weber said. They will be medically screened and vaccinated. And while in HHS custody, they will receive classroom education, recreation and family reunification services.
They are then placed with a sponsor while their immigration status is adjudicated.
U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Arvada, who received a private tour of the facility on Wednesday, said it's sad that so many children feel they have no choice but to cross the U.S. border illegally.
"These kids are coming from a place of desperation, and to give them accommodation and a measure of comfort is the right thing to do," he said.
At the same time, he said he "wants to assure the neighbors that this isn't some dangerous situation for them."
"This is a place for a temporary stay, and it will be secured by HHS," said Perlmutter, who described the building where the children will stay as a vacant office warehouse.
Wednesday's news comes at a time when the number of unaccompanied Central American children entering the United States is ticking up after dramatically decreasing from a peak of nearly 57,500 children crossing the border a couple of years ago.
Last fiscal year, nearly 25,000 unaccompanied minors crossed the border. Since October, there have been 10,000 crossings, Weber said.
The news also comes against a backdrop of strong anti-immigration sentiment voiced by several Republican presidential candidates, most notably New York businessman and front-runner Donald Trump.
Perlmutter said the Lakewood facility's housing of children should mute all but the harshest critics of illegal immigration.
"At the end of the day, most people will see them as children that need sponsors, and there has to be provided some shelter for them," he said.
Lakewood Mayor Adam Paul criticized federal officials for the short notice they gave on their site choice. He was told they had just begun assessing the Federal Center as a shelter site a few days before Christmas.
"I feel there was poor communication from the federal government," he said.
Paul said he wouldn't know what kind of impact the facility might have on medical or first responder services in Lakewood but said he should know more after participating in a phone conference with federal officials Thursday.
Paul said he does not know if or how local residents can help the children given the secure environment in which they will be kept.
"I'm sure our community would answer," he said.
Last year, Denver officials volunteered to house dozens of children in similar situations in a 54-bed city-operated family crisis center. The children would have stayed there while waiting to be resettled with family members who already lived in Colorado.
"In Denver, we care about kids," Mayor Michael Hancock said in explaining the decision to apply for a three-year grant from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Ultimately, the feds deferred Denver's application in December 2014 because the program didn't need the extra beds at that time.
Weber did not know how long the Lakewood facility would be in operation. He said it was chosen from a long list of possible sites.
The other five shelters for unaccompanied immigrant children will be in Florida, Texas and New Mexico, Weber said. They range from 300 to 800 beds. The largest of those will be in Homestead, Fla.
Denver Post Staff Writer Jon Murray contributed to this report.
John Aguilar: 303-954-1695, email@example.com or @abuvthefold
I speak as a retired US Border Patrol/INS/ICE agent.
Washington's handling of illegal immigration is solely driven by profit and greed. Who runs the prison industries that make $125 a day per head, per child (and adult) held in immigration custody? Last I heard the total immigration bed space across the US was about 33,000.
Do the math.
Who reaps the benefits of NAFTA and CAFTA trade policies that have done nothing but exacerbate illegal immigration since their inception? Who suffers the costs and consequences of a ever-increasing "border security" budget that never quite gets the job done?
The "war" against illegal immigration is not unlike our 40+ year long "war on drugs" or any other military conflict du jour that Washington gets its grimy, greedy hands involved in.
Continuous profits flow from their never-ending fight. Hence Washington's narratives on these topics never allow for any real solutions.
Meanwhile, what do the majority of posters educate themselves about? Complain about?