FORT SILL (AP) — Teenage immigrants from Central America spent Thursday playing soccer and board games at a temporary shelter at Fort Sill, seemingly unaware they are at the center of the political firestorm over U.S. immigration.
It was the first time the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has allowed media inside the facility at the Army post in southwest Oklahoma since it opened on June 14, and there were heavy restrictions placed on reporters. Participants in the tour were prohibited from taking pictures, asking questions or interacting with staff or children at the shelter.
“Children in these shelters are especially vulnerable,” said Jesus Garcia, a spokesman for HHS’ Administration for Children and Families. “They may have been trafficked or smuggled. Allowing images or recordings to be taken of these children could divulge their identities and compromise their safety and privacy.”
U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine, who was turned away from the facility when he arrived unannounced last week, has criticized the restrictions on the media as “unacceptable” and urged reporters not to participate. Bridenstine, a first-term congressman from Tulsa, plans to tour the site on Saturday but also has said he intends to continue making unannounced visits.
The boys and girls are segregated into 60-bed dormitories inside a three-story brick barracks complex that is typically used for incoming Army recruits who take basic training at Fort Sill. During Thursday’s visit, many of the boys played soccer outside, while girls were receiving classroom instruction and doing arts and crafts.
Inside a dormitory, small groups of girls played cards or board games and listened to pop music on the radio.
There currently are about 1,160 children aged 13 to 17 being housed at the temporary shelter on the southeast side of the post, not far from Interstate 44. Another 567 children already have been discharged from Fort Sill, and most of those have been placed with sponsors, usually relatives, living in the United States, said ACF spokesman Kenneth Wolfe.
More than 3,500 children have been discharged from similar temporary shelters in San Antonio and California, Wolfe said.
The vast majority of the children discharged from the shelters will be reunited with qualified family members under existing immigration law, and deportation proceedings will begin, said Richard Klinge, an attorney with Catholic Charities who is providing legal services to children at Fort Sill.
“The child’s case will ultimately be transferred to the immigration court where that parent or qualified relative resides,” Klinge said.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials say the number of unaccompanied minors picked up since October now stands at 57,000, up from 52,000 in mid-June, and more than double what it was at the same time last year. They’re coming mostly from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, often fleeing gang violence.
President Barack Obama on Wednesday urged Congress to swiftly approve a nearly $4 billion emergency spending package to deal with the crisis, including funding for increased border security, more immigration judges, an increase in detention facilities, care for the children and for programs in Central America to try to keep them from coming.
While some members of Oklahoma’s all-Republican congressional delegation have rejected Obama’s proposal, U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, the state’s only member on the Appropriations Committee, said both the committee and a separate House working group will look at it and see where common ground can be reached.
“Probably, Republicans will want to add something. We’re not going to give the president a blank check,” Cole said. “If the aim is just simply to manage the flow of people better, people won’t be thrilled about that. If it’s to actually address and solve the problem, then that’s another matter, and he’ll find some cooperation.”
Cole is among those calling for the children to be quickly returned to their home countries to send a message to parents in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras not to send their children on a dangerous journey to the United States.
“These kids are going to go somewhere or they’re going to stay on Fort Sill,” Cole said. “I would prefer they go home, and I think that’s probably where we differ with the administration.”