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Officials fret over rushed plans to hold migrant children in Lakewood
Content originally published by The Denver Post on January 10th, 2016.
A plan by the federal government to convert a Lakewood warehouse into a waypoint for child migrants is raising concern among immigration activists and Colorado lawmakers — much of it derived from the worry that the Obama administration is trying to do too much too quickly.
Fueling the anxiety is the speed in which the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is moving ahead with the facility, which is expected to hold as many as 1,000 child migrants who have fled illegally over the border to the U.S. primarily from Central America.
HHS officials announced their intent to open the Lakewood center only recently — in late December — and the goal is to have it ready in April, less than four months from now.
But the administration has yet to hire a contractor to retrofit the warehouse at the Federal Center in Lakewood, and major questions remain about the cost of the facility, the length of time it will remain open and how quickly the administration can hire the hundreds of employees needed to operate the place on a 24/7 schedule.
There is also concern about the potential conditions.
The administration expects the facility will serve as a temporary home for children age 13 to 17, and — if past trends hold true — the majority of residents will be teenage boys.
"Anyone who is in the business of fostering kids or taking care of kids will tell you that a large-scale facility — by sheer virtue of their size — presents real management issues," said Laura Lichter, a Colorado attorney and former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "Who in their right freaking mind thinks that's a good idea? Have any of these people read 'Lord of the Flies'?"
Lichter suggested instead that the Obama administration seek to place the children in smaller settings and with nongovernmental organizations.
Current guidelines require the center to provide one adult supervisor for every eight children — meaning a full house of 1,000 migrants would necessitate at least 125 caretakers.
But that's just for one shift. The figure is certain to rise depending on the number of shifts used to supervise the facility, as well as how its operators plan to staff the overnight rotation.
Finding these supervisors could be a challenge too. Not only do applicants have to pass a background check, they also must be able to speak Spanish, said HHS officials.
In anticipation of this situation, an agency spokeswoman said HHS last year hired four contractors to provide staffing for Lakewood and other child migrant facilities it plans to open in Florida and New Mexico.
They are CHSi, Brookstone Emergency Services, GDIT and SW Key. These contractors, who could subcontract locally, are in charge of finding adult supervisors for the children, as well as employees to fill a host of other positions, from security forces to cafeteria personnel to mental health clinicians.
Ultimately, the Lakewood facility could employ hundreds of workers, although no one yet knows the exact number.
Adding to the complexity is the length of time each child migrant will stay at Lakewood — because the turnover could be significant.
On average, each child is expected to be there about a month before HHS transfers him or her to relatives or a sponsor family. From there, the children will go through the immigration system and find out whether they will be allowed to stay in the U.S. or ordered out of the country.
Looking to assuage local anxiety, HHS officials have highlighted the agency's history in establishing centers for migrant children here illegally, many of whom have arrived from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras to escape the violence and poverty of their home countries.
"The Office of Refugee Resettlement has a great deal of experience setting up temporary facilities," Andrea Helling, a Health and Human Services spokeswoman, said in a statement. "We are confident that we can have the Denver Federal Facility ready for operational use for April, including full security and child care staffing, and we are committed to being good neighbors to the community."
Currently, HHS runs a permanent network of more than 100 child migrant centers in 12 states — for a total of about 8,400 beds — but because of worries of a new influx of unaccompanied children, they plan to open at least three more, including the one in Lakewood.
It's the latest chapter in a saga that goes back years and that grabbed national headlines in 2014 when at least 67,000 unaccompanied children from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico made contact with the U.S. Border Patrol. The influx receded in 2015, but the administration is concerned that a new wave is swelling.
That worry extends to Colorado's congressional delegation, which has raised questions about the White House response.
Last week, U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., sent a letter to HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell with a long list of inquiries, including how long HHS plans to operate the Lakewood facility, which HHS says will be temporary.
U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Arvada, raised similar issues Wednesday when he convened Colorado lawmakers and federal officials to talk about the project.
"We need to watch this carefully," Perlmutter said. "It's a big undertaking, and there is a lot of work that has to be done."
He noted the Colorado delegation is particularly sensitive to big federal projects — given its experience with a new Department of Veterans Affairs hospital under construction in Aurora.
"We have had the experience to also be not skeptical but wary in making sure things get done as proposed and promised," Perlmutter said.