Feds scrap plans to open center for migrant kids in Lakewood

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Washington, DC, February 12, 2016 | comments

Content originally published by The Denver Post on February 12th, 2016.

In a surprise reversal, federal officials said Friday that the Obama administration no longer plans to open a 1,000-bed facility for migrant children at the Federal Center in Lakewood.

The change comes less than two months after the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced it wanted to convert a warehouse at the Federal Center into a temporary home for children who enter the country illegally.

The idea was to open the facility by April, but HHS officials said a preliminary assessment of the warehouse revealed that renovations would take a year to complete and that it would cost between $28 million and $37 million.

Instead, HHS — which already manages more than 100 child migrant centers in 12 states — plans to look at other locations to deal with a new wave of child migrants."The price tag and time line associated with the renovations necessary do not meet our need to have a facility ready for use this spring," said HHS spokeswoman Andrea Helling in a statement.

At the end of last year, U. S. officials saw a sharp increase in the number of children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. The influx recalled a similar mass migration that grabbed national headlines in 2014 when an estimated 68,000 children were caught as they tried to enter the U.S. without a parent.

As was the case then, most of these children now are traveling from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — Central American countries struggling with gang violence and entrenched poverty.

But HHS and congressional officials said the rush of child migrants in the last three months of 2015 declined somewhat in January, giving the administration more time to find an alternative to Lakewood.

The agency already has opened one temporary facility at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. A second one in the southern Florida city of Homestead should be ready later this month. Others could come online later, though HHS officials did not provide details on where else they were looking.

In general, Colorado lawmakers were not opposed to HHS opening the facility in Lakewood, though many had questions about whether the administration could complete the facility in the four-month time frame it had set for itself.

"After personally visiting the site, it quickly became evident that setting up a facility of this magnitude was going to be a monumental undertaking," said U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Arvada. "While I wish HHS had conducted a thorough assessment before making any public announcements, I'm glad to see they have done appropriate due diligence prior to starting construction."

Lakewood Mayor Adam Paul said he had similar worries; he also criticized the administration for its approach.

"For me, the lesson learned is that the federal government isn't the best communicator with its partners," he said.

Paul added that nearby residents likely will view the news with mixed feelings.

"The Lakewood community reacted in a positive way with people wanting to help and that was good," he said. "And for the folks who didn't want to see it, it's not coming and it can bring them some closure too."

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