On Tuesday, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that it will begin holding unaccompanied migrant children at Fort Sill, a 150-year-old military base in Oklahoma. In World War II, the site was used as an internment camp for Japanese-Americans.
The move comes in response to a surge of migrants at the southern border, and a dearth of space in government detention facilities. Around 1,400 migrant children will be sent to Fort Sill next month. Last week, it was announced that an apartment complex in Carrizo Springs, Texas, would be turned into an emergency shelter for 1,600 migrant children.
In the month of May alone, 11,000 children arrived the border unaccompanied, and in a statement the DHS said it has detained 40,900 children from the beginning of the year through the end of April, a 57% increase from last year. As of early June, over 13,000 migrant children were being in shelters contracted by the government. Unaccompanied children are kept in federal custody until they can be placed with a sponsor, usually a relative already living in the United States.
The decision to use the site of an internment camp as an emergency detention facility highlights parallels that have been made between the Trump administration and the treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. While campaigning in 2015, Trump said that he might have supported internment. “I would have had to be there at the time to tell you, to give you a proper answer,” he said. “I certainly hate the concept of it. But I would have had to be there at the time to give you a proper answer.”
Despite the narrative implications, transferring migrant children to the site of an internment camp site is not a uniquely Trumpian misdeed. Fort Sill was also used to house migrant children by the Obama administration, which kept 7,700 children at the Oklahoma base — as well as military bases in California and Texas — for four months in 2014. But the problem has worsened precipitously since Obama left office, and children are suffering. “We are in a full-blown emergency, and I cannot say this stronger, the system is broken,” Acting Customs and Border Patrol Commissioner John Sanders told reporters.
Housing is not the only service the Trump administration is struggling to provide to migrant children. Last week, it was announced that activities, including “education services, legal services and recreation” for migrant children, would be “scaled back or discontinued,” as it was costing too much money given the record numbers of children in custody. The HHS has requested nearly $3 billion from Congress to expand care and shelter. In the meantime, HHS spokesperson Mark Weber explained that the services “are not directly necessary for the protection of life and safety.”
The problems go beyond funding. Late last month, authorities couldn’t seem to agree why nearly 2,500 unaccompanied minors were recently held by CBP for more than 72 hours before they were transferred to a housing facility, constituting a violation of federal law. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan told reporters the children were being held for longer than law permits because of a lack of bed space at housing facilities. Weber, the HHS spokesman, disagreed, telling reporters that “shelters have beds available and they are ready to receive UAC [unaccompanied alien children] when processed by DHS.”
Last month, Carlos Hernandez Vásquez, a 16-year-old boy from Guatemala, died after spending six days in a CPB detention facility.
Such reports of incompetence at the border are becoming increasingly commonplace. Earlier this month, NBC News reported that a botched family reunification effort last July left 37 migrant children between the ages of 5 and 12 in vans overnight. Most spent close to 24 hours in the vans, baking in the Texas heat.
It wasn’t the only horror story of the Trump administration’s neglect for migrant children to be retroactively reported in recent weeks. Late last month, CBS News reported that a 10-year-old girl from El Salvador died last September while under the care of the government, bringing the total of migrant children to die under the care of the Trump administration to six, the latest being Vásquez, who experienced flu-like symptoms after spending nearly twice the amount of time in CPB custody permitted by law.
Hours before the death was reported, McAleenan was asked by Congress whether every child in CBP custody has access to a pediatrician. His answer was simple: “No.”