Feds Scrap Plan for Massive Shelter for Immigrant Kids in Inland Empire

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Central American migrants wait to be transported after turning themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol agents. (John Moore/Getty Images)

The federal government has canceled plans to build a shelter to house more than 400 unaccompanied immigrant children in California's Inland Empire.

In a statement on the Federal Business Opportunities website, where the proposal was first posted, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said it had "determined it is in the best interest of the Government to cancel this project."

The original proposal from HHS's Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) sought to lease a 74,000-square-foot facility for 17 years. The proposed shelter was intended to house up to 430 children and 143 staff, with a projected opening date of December 2020.

Officials with HHS would not provide more details on why the project was canceled. But U.S. Rep. Raul Ruiz, a Democrat who represents parts of the Inland Empire and sits on the House subcommittee that oversees HHS, said he thinks the disintegration of the plan is a direct result of the pressure that he and other California lawmakers and activists put on the government.

"I think the administration was reluctant to pursue a warehouse-type facility for young children because we would demand transparency," Ruiz said.

Ruiz and several Congressional colleagues from the area sent a letter to ORR in August, asking that the federal government provide more information about the proposed facility.

The decision to cancel the facility comes as more than 72,000 unaccompanied children and teens have been apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border in the last 11 months, nearly 30,000 more than during the same period the previous year, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

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Despite that significant increase, Ruiz said housing children in large facilities like this is not the best path forward.

"A facility that's bad for the children in the Inland Empire is going to be bad for children anywhere else in the United States," said Ruiz, who is a physician. "These types of facilities should be blocked in all locations. Instead, resources should be spent toward smaller group care for children to meet their emotional and humanitarian needs."

California currently has at least nine other facilities that house unaccompanied minors, which are run by nonprofits under contract with ORR, and licensed by the state Department of Social Services.