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FEMA Wants to House Migrant Children in Empty Big Box Stores

Warehouses and shopping malls are also being considered

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A few weeks ago, Fox News 7/WWNY-TV broke a story about an army base in Watertown, New York that was being considered as a short-term shelter facility to detain some of the unaccompanied minors who have crossed the southern border into the United States in recent months. A recruiting agency for healthcare professionals, Occupational Health Connections, was contracted to solicit applicants to help run it, and posted ads on Craigslist and EBAY seeking staffers to take care of the kids: “Unknown start date but will probably start after 4th of July. There will be little notice so we are trying to get resumes and licenses of those interested.” The posting went on to explain, “These are children refugees who are crossing the border to escape drug cartels and will need healthcare.” 

Though intended to provide useful background information, this statement was incorrect: Unaccompanied minors who cross the border are not refugees. They might qualify for immigration relief, like asylum or special immigrant juvenile status, but that is different than being classed as a refugee—and quite difficult to obtain without an attorney, of whom there are very few. The well-intentioned but muddled ad underlines one of the most pressing elements of this crisis: Regardless of how we classify these children, how do we best care for them while they are in our custody? Fort Drum in Watertown was set aside as a shelter option, but the questions it raised remain.

Because the number of children from Central America recently arriving without parents or immigration papers has far surpassed predictions (doubling each year since 2011), the pre-existing detention shelters, mostly along the southern border, are packed to the gills: There is not nearly enough space for the more than 52,000 children who have arrived since October. As the government figures out what to do with all of these children, horrifying photos of unsanitary, unsafe, and inhumane conditions in the cramped facilities have surfaced. In a coordinated effort between FEMA and the Department of Health and Human Services, the government is scrambling to find adequate facilities wherever it can. 

Though most often apprehended along the southern border, unaccompanied minors are often headed to live with family members or friends throughout the U.S., from Chicago to New York to San Francisco to Omaha to Atlanta. (In addition to being a journalist, I work at a high school for immigrant youth in Oakland, California, where dozens of unaccompanied minors are temporarily reunited with family members while awaiting their day in immigration court.) That their housing facilities would also be located outside the border regions makes sense in terms of resource allocation—there are only so many empty air force bases in the Rio Grande Valley—but it is deeply troubling to many Americans, as if the further inside the U.S. we detain the children, the more likely it is they’ll stay here for good. 

Predictably, the proposal to house child migrants in Watertown sparked local outrage. From the Watertown Daily Times: “Turn the planes south and land them in Central American countries where these kids came from so we can reunite them with their parents. Who by the way are ultimately responsible for their well being … not the U.S. taxpayer.” And: “I say bus the illegal aliens to the border [sic] with a gal of water and have them cross back over where the belong.” The preemptive protest echoed the response in Murietta, California, where protesters blockaded a bus carrying unaccompanied children from Texas to detention facilities in Southern California. The protestors, urged on by their mayor, held up signs reading “return to sender.” Such reactions, of course, are overblown; all of these children will enter immediately into deportation proceedings, and there are even some proposals that would deport them before any appearance in court. But the underlying anxiety—just what should we do with these children while they are in our care—is well founded. Even FEMA seems to be struggling to come up with a viable response to that concern. 

In recent weeks, FEMA representatives have sent mass emails to advocacy networks throughout the country soliciting potential detention facilities and offering guidelines for acceptable spaces. The guidelines include being “Within 50 miles of major city (Pop ~200K)/airport; available for lease; able to be fenced or have adequate security.” Showers and toilets are preferable, according to the guidelines, but not necessary—so long as there is outdoor space for “staging areas for shower/restroom/laundry/kitchen trailers, etc.” Also preferred but not necessary, according to the email, is a kitchen, a cafeteria, recreational space, and classroom space. Suggestions for potentially workable locations? “Office space, warehouse, big box store, shopping mall with interior concourse, event venues, hotel or dorms, aircraft hangers”—provided that they are vacant and able to be leased.

Since the failures of Hurricane Katrina, faith in FEMA to adequately respond to large-scale crisis situations has remained shaky at best. These pleas for empty big box stores do not restore much confidence. According to a press statement from the American Red Cross, at the “urgent request of the federal government,” the Red Cross is providing “blankets and hygiene kits to U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Texas, and is providing assistance in Nogales, Arizona, with contacting and placing phone calls to the children’s families.” Red Cross representatives declined to comment about whether the organization is able, or would like to, offer more assistance to FEMA—such as setting up emergency tent shelters along the border, like they do in disaster zones around the globe, while FEMA secures indoor facilities. 

The U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), has also been a part of discussions, according to Leslie Velez, Senior Protection Officer at the UNHCR. But according to Velez, the U.S. likely won't need active help from the U.N. “The U.S. has a good system in place already,” she says. While a lot of national energy and attention is being focused on the large detention facilities, she explains, the U.S. is an international model for alternatives to detention for minors—such as foster care arrangements or release to family members pending removal proceedings. The problem, she says, is really one of resources: You need staff to be able to arrange and monitor these non-detention settings. “For those allowed access, the U.S. system to care and process unaccompanied children is actually well designed, but it’s incredibly under-resourced, and has been for years," Velez says. A lot is riding on how this system is used in the coming weeks and months.  “It’s really important that the U.S. continues to get this right because it’s a model for the rest of world.”

This piece has been updated.