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No unaccompanied minors will be sent to Grand Forks Air Force Base, Central American kids escaping violence, officials say

GRAND FORKS -- Grand Forks Air Force Base will not be a temporary shelter for unaccompanied minors coming across the southern border, U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., announced Monday.

GRAND FORKS -- Grand Forks Air Force Base will not be a temporary shelter for unaccompanied minors coming across the southern border, U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., announced Monday.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was considering using the base to house the children, many of whom have tried to escape gang violence in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras in recent years.

The idea drew criticism from U.S. Sen. John Hoeven and U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer, both North Dakota Republicans who advocated for housing unaccompanied children in southern facilities. Hoeven cited logistical concerns of using a base far from the border, and Cramer called it an “inappropriate use of a military base.”

But in an interview last month, Heitkamp said she hoped “the prevailing attitude in Grand Forks will be one of welcoming these children” if the HHS chose to house them here.

HHS decided against an unused building on Grand Forks Air Force Base because it couldn’t hold enough people and has never been used for housing, according to a press release from Heitkamp’s office. It also doesn’t have windows or access to infrastructure for a kitchen, dining and food preparation.

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“Today’s decision by HHS was made after officials from the agency visited Grand Forks Air Force Base and assessed whether or not the base met the federal government’s needs to temporarily house unaccompanied children fleeing unfathomable violence in Central America,” Heitkamp said in a statement. “But if it were under consideration again in the future, I would hope that Grand Forks and all of North Dakota would welcome these children who have to live day-to-day in some of the most dire situations that we can’t even fathom.”

Heitkamp said said she saw the “heartbreaking circumstances” the children face during an official Senate trip to Central America last year, adding that they are fleeing “areas that are essentially war zones.”

Humanitarian response

The United States saw a surge in children coming across the border by themselves in late 2015, with the Washington Post reporting more than 10,500 crossed into the U.S. in October and November, a 106 percent increase over the same period a year prior.

Still, fewer than 30,000 unaccompanied Central American minors were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border in fiscal year 2015, down from more than 50,000 in fiscal year 2014, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

Andrea Helling, an HHS spokeswoman, previously said the department was paying close attention to the number of children coming across the border and expanding capacity.

A child is in HHS care for an average of 32 days while officials find a U.S. sponsor, which is often a family member, Helling said in December. They also go through immigration proceedings once they leave HHS care.

“The Department of Defense is an exemplary partner in this humanitarian response and we look forward to their continued partnership as we develop efficient, cost-effective strategies to address temporary shelter needs for unaccompanied children in the care of the Department of Health and Human Services,” Helling said in an email Monday. She added Grand Forks Air Force Base “was determined to be not appropriate for use at this time.”

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Cramer agreed with the HHS decision, in part because using military facilities isn’t “compassionate” to children fleeing their home countries.

“What we need to do is keep them close to the border in facilities designed specifically for this and then provide them their legal process as quickly as possible and return them home,” he said in an interview. “I don’t think any military base anywhere, much less in Grand Forks, N.D., accomplishes that.”

Cramer voiced his concerns with the idea of using military bases during a speech on the House floor in January and in a letter to Office of Refugee Resettlement Director Robert Carey in late 2015.

Hoeven reiterated his position that it didn’t make sense to bring the children to a northern tier base such as Grand Forks.

“It makes much more sense to locate them in facilities we have along the southern border that are designed for them and then work to reunite them with their families in their home countries,” he said Monday.

Related Topics: KEVIN CRAMER
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