Minors are seen as they exercise in a common area at the Homestead shelter for unaccompanied migrant children on April 8, 2019, in Homestead, Florida, the biggest shelter of its kind in the nation. A proposed 430-bed shelter in California's Inland Empire, although significantly smaller, would be the biggest in the state. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
The U.S. agency charged with caring for unaccompanied migrant children is eyeing California’s Inland Empire as a potential location for a major new shelter facility, according to official records.
The proposal, which was posted earlier this month on the Federal Business Opportunities website, comes at a time when the number of minors in federal custody has dipped since the beginning of the year but still remains at historic highs.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) is seeking to lease a 74,000-square-foot facility for 17 years that can house up to 430 children and 143 staff, with a projected opening date of December 2020.
The plan for the shelter includes 215 double bedrooms, 11 children’s bathrooms (with a total of 72 toilets and 43 showers), classrooms, medical exam rooms, a dining room and an outdoor play area.
U.S. Rep. Raul Ruiz — a Democrat who represents parts of the Inland Empire and sits on the House subcommittee that oversees ORR — said members of Congress who represent the area were not informed before the solicitation was submitted.
"That's a big problem," said Ruiz who, along with three other members of Congress from the same region, recently sent a letter to ORR voicing his concerns. "One of our concerns is that if members of Congress were not engaged — especially those whose area and region will be affected — then they definitely did not engage with local stakeholders, agencies, nonprofits and foster care regarding this project."
California currently has at least nine other residential facilities for migrant children run by nonprofit service providers under contract with ORR. Many of them came under fire earlier this year after a report from Disability Rights California found that many children in ORR custody who suffered from trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health disabilities were not receiving proper counseling or treatment.
The California shelters are among roughly 170 facilities nationwide designed to receive migrant children who arrive in the United States without parents or guardians. They are intended to serve as temporary housing while children's cases are decided in the immigration court system, and until they can be placed with a parent or other approved sponsor.
More than 69,000 unaccompanied children and teens have been apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border in the last 10 months, nearly 30,000 more than during the same time period the previous year, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The vast majority of those children have come from the Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — a region known as the Northern Triangle — where weak governments have struggled to rein in violent criminal gangs in the wake of civil wars, underdevelopment and corruption.
As of Aug. 5, there were approximately 8,700 children in ORR custody. That’s a sharp decline from as recently as June, when the agency had an average of more than 13,000 kids in its care. But it’s more than double the number of children who were in custody just four years ago.
In addition to kids traveling without parents, the shelters house thousands of children who were forcibly separated from their parents by border agents, especially during 2018 when the Trump administration attempted a zero tolerance policy of criminally prosecuting all unauthorized adult border-crossers.
ORR did not respond to a request for comment.
Although the proposed 430-bed Inland Empire facility would not be the nation's largest shelter for so-called unaccompanied alien children, it would be the biggest in California by far.
"At the moment, the largest group home that the state of California licenses is 184 beds," said Adam Weintraub, spokesman for the California Department of Social Services. "So this would be more than double the size."
And that has raised alarm among immigrant advocates.
"The sheer size of this facility concerns us," Katie Mathews, an attorney with Disability Rights California, said in a statement. "It would be the biggest ORR shelter in all of California and would more than double the statewide capacity for unaccompanied immigrant children. The current largest facility holds fewer than 70 children. The proposed facility would hold almost seven times as many."
The size also goes against California's Continuum of Care Reform, intended to steer the state away from large-scale group home models, in place of placing children in family settings.
"The idea is that the ideal environment for most children is that single-family home," said Weintraub.
That’s an assertion that is shared by immigrant rights advocates.
"The care of these children draws on the standard that I would apply as the parent of, in my case, a 2-year-old. Would I want to warehouse my daughter in a shelter that has an almost 500-child capacity?" asked Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. "You can put in case managers, you can try to set educational standards, but the reality is, what you're setting are standards for an institution – as opposed to, what I think any parent would want for a child, a family setting."
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