Pentagon Says It Won’t Pay for Housing of Immigrants

Preparing shelters at military bases could take weeks.

An entrance to Fort Bliss is shown as reports indicate the military will begin to construct temporary housing for migrants. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
An entrance to Fort Bliss is shown as reports indicate the military will begin to construct temporary housing for migrants. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The U.S. Defense Department made clear Monday that it would not foot the bill for the housing of some 32,000 detained immigrants whom the Trump administration wants sheltered at military installations as part of its “zero tolerance” enforcement policy on America’s border with Mexico.

A Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Col. Jamie Davis, said the department would also not be involved in caring for the migrants. Instead, the burden would fall on other government agencies: the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services.

The other agencies did not immediately respond to the announcement. Health and Human Services did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

As part of Trump’s immigration policy, authorities had been separating migrant children from their parents at the border for months, drawing widespread criticism. Trump halted the policy last month and asked the Pentagon to find places where family members could be housed together.

Of the 11,800 minors currently in Health and Human Services custody, more than 80 percent are teenagers, mostly males, who crossed the border on their own, according to the department.

The Pentagon is currently in the midst of conducting environmental assessments at two military bases to gauge their suitability for the project, Davis said.

“If we are using [Defense Department] people, our machinery, then the expectation is DHS or HHS will reimburse us,” Davis said. He said the two agencies would also provide food and medical care for the migrants.

The 32,000 immigrants include some 20,000 unaccompanied children.

The Department of Homeland Security has specifically requested the construction of “semi-separate, soft-sided camp facilities” — primarily tents — capable of sheltering up to 4,000 family members at three separate installations. The first of these will be at Fort Bliss in Texas and New Mexico.

Housing migrants at military installations is not unprecedented. During the Obama administration in 2014, the Defense Department sheltered nearly 16,000 unaccompanied migrant children on five military bases after they were detained. The Department of Health and Human Services cared for the children and reimbursed the Pentagon for the cost of housing them. (Standard shelters run around $250 per day per child, according to some estimates.)

Although the numbers are now significantly higher than in 2014, the allocation of responsibility between the departments of Defense and Health and Human Services is expected to be similar.

“DoD is not going to have any involvement, any interaction with the children or the families,” Davis said.

The military is nowhere near ready to house these immigrants. The Defense Department will not break ground on construction of new facilities until Homeland Security and Health and Human Services have signed a “notice of intent,” Davis said. The facilities would then be available within 45 days of this event.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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