A flood of immigrant children arriving at the border with Mexico could end up in Washington state at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma.
Most of them make the journey alone, fleeing violence and poverty in Central America. Their average age is 14. Increasingly more of them are girls.
This year, U.S. agencies on the border are seeing unaccompanied minors arrive at record levels. Since October, 52,000 unaccompanied children have been apprehended on the U.S. border with Mexico, according to the Department of Homeland Security. The numbers have doubled since last year, and are expected to keep rising.
The feds are overwhelmed and are now looking for extra bed space as they sort through individual cases.
U.S. Representative Denny Heck of Olympia confirmed that the federal government is considering the military base as a temporary shelter. But it’s unclear for how many kids, or how soon.
“This is a humanitarian crisis that has steadily gotten worse since at least 2005,” Heck said in a statement. “It’s a crisis that won’t ebb until these children’s home countries attack the root of this problem and enforce their own rule of law such that these children aren’t forced to flee for their lives.”
He added: “I have inquired and have been assured that as this process moves forward the mission of our service members on JBLM will not be hindered.”
JBLM is one of several facilities across the country under consideration as a temporary shelter.
Megan McKenna, a spokeswoman for legal aid group Kids In Need of Defense, said she worries that these temporary shelters won’t have the resources for these children, many of whom arrive traumatized.
“We know for example that many, many of the girls experience sexual violence along the journey, and there are more girls coming than ever before,” she said. “And some of these children, these girls, are pregnant as a result of these assaults.”
Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) was co-founded by Microsoft and operates field offices in Seattle and several other cities.
If children are sent to JBLM, McKenna said she’s is hopeful that KIND will be able to provide legal help and counseling there. She said many minors could qualify for asylum or other legal status.
Jaime Smith, a spokeswoman from Governor Jay Inslee, also said their office is in contact with federal officials and closely monitoring what they call “an urgent humanitarian situation.”