Federal officials answer questions on Lakewood immigrant facility

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Washington, DC, January 19, 2016 | comments

Content originally published by The Denver Post on January 19th, 2016.

Several thousand people joined a telephone town hall Tuesday to probe the details of a temporary shelter being readied at the Denver Federal Center in Lakewood to house unaccompanied immigrant children who have entered the United States illegally.

Local residents asked Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Arvada, and federal officials from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Homeland Security and the General Services Administration about security at the facility, foster parent opportunities and the thorny politics behind U.S. immigration policy.

The shelter, which will have a 1,000-bed capacity, is scheduled to open in April.

"Basically, this is self-contained at the Federal Center," Perlmutter said in response to a question about the impacts the facility might have on Lakewood.

The Federal Center is a secure site, said Maria Cancian, deputy assistant secretary for policy for the Administration for Children and Families, a division of Health and Human Services. Cancian said the kids will be restricted to the building during their stay.

The typical stay at a temporary shelter like the one planned in Lakewood is about a month, Cancian said. The child is then reunited with family members or placed with a sponsor while immigration status is determined.

"All educational services are provided on site," she said. "We make arrangements to have physicians on call as well."

Tim Horne, regional commissioner for public buildings with GSA, said mobile units may be brought in to help provide laundry and food service.

One resident asked if the countries where most of the children are coming from — El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala — are helping defray the costs of housing the children.

Perlmutter said that was unlikely, given the political turmoil, economic distress and extreme violence in those nations.

But he said State Department officials are dealing with their counterparts in each country to see what programs and partnerships can be forged to improve daily life there so that kids don't feel forced to flee.

And Mexico is doing a better job of apprehending children — 35,000 last year — traveling through, Perlmutter said.

"We're a magnet," the congressman said of the United States. "We have been for 250 years."

He added the children won't get automatic citizenship.

"They still have to present a basis under the law why they should remain," Perlmutter said.

One caller offered to foster a child, but Cancian said the "vast majority" of children are reunited with family members quickly.

"We are not looking for foster parents to take them," she said.

The challenge of dealing with unaccompanied Central American children entering the United States became evident in 2014, when nearly 57,500 children crossed the border.

The number has spiked in the past few months. The 17,000 children who entered the country in the last quarter of 2015 is "the highest number we've ever recorded in the fall," Cancian said.

Perlmutter said the solution isn't easy. "The goal would be to stop — whether it's violence or poverty — what is driving these kids to come here," he said.

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