Baldwin County Commissioners say they will do everything in their power to stop a federal government plan to house unaccompanied illegal alien children in semipermanent camps at a pair of airfields in rural areas of the county.
Commissioners hosted an open teleconference at the county’s Robertsdale annex on June 14 with representatives from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement about the plan, which could potentially place up to 2,000 unaccompanied children caught crossing the country’s southern border at Navy outlying fields in Silverhill and Josephine. The teleconference, which was held in a conference room, was also broadcast to the commission’s auditorium in the same building, where a crowd of roughly 250 residents listened.
Representatives from the federal government visited the sites last week to perform a feasibility assessment. On June 14, federal officials could not give commissioners a timeline of when the results of the assessments will become available or when the department would begin the work of installing infrastructure at the sites.
HHS has maintained the semipermanent structures would only be used if the department were to experience a “substantial” increase in the number of unaccompanied children. The department currently has 8,700 beds in its “shelter network” and an additional 2,000 beds on reserve if needed. Some reserve beds are already available at the Homestead Job Corps Center in Homestead, Florida.
Jim Mason, an HHS representative, said the country has experienced an influx in unaccompanied children crossing the southern border in recent years. In 2012, the program served roughly 13,600 children. Last year, it served more than 37,000. Mason told commissioners the majority of the unaccompanied children are over age 14 and two-thirds are male.
Children from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador account for more than 90 percent of those caught at the southern border, while others come from Mexico and other Central and South American nations.
The federal program receives roughly $950 million in annual funding, according to Mason. The program was originally under the Department of Justice Immigration and Naturalization Service but has been folded into the Department of Homeland Security.
Unaccompanied children are housed in the semipermanent shelters as they are processed through the immigration court system. Usually they are released from the program when the federal government connects them with a family member or close family friend who can serve as a guardian. The average time for a child to stay in one of the shelters is roughly 30 days, but officials stressed none of the children leave the camp before the federal government can find their proper identification and a suitable guardian.
The children are also not allowed to leave the camp and, thus, do not make an impact on surrounding communities, according to HHS.
Commissioners asked the representatives a range of questions encompassing security, infrastructure, hurricane evacuation and the potential for lowered property values in nearby communities. Ultimately, though, they admitted that no answers would be satisfactory.
“We are asking a lot of questions because we want to know the answers, but there are really no answers you could provide that will make us feel comfortable with this,” Commission President Tucker Dorsey said to the officials.
Commissioner Chris Elliott echoed Dorsey’s sentiment, saying despite any good intentions the federal government may have, the commission will fight the potential use of Baldwin County airfields for the program at every step.
“I want to be clear, and I’m not trying to be rude because I believe in Southern hospitality, but for the record you are not welcome here,” Elliott told the officials. “We are not interested in having these facilities here. We don’t have the infrastructure you need and we think you are going to severely screw up our hurricane evacuation protocols. We want you to find somewhere else to do this.”
Baldwin County Sheriff Huey “Hoss” Mack asked the officials about security protocols at its other semipermanent camps similar to those proposed in Baldwin County.
Andrea Helling, the ORR chief of staff, said the department normally hires a private security firm or partners with local law enforcement to provide security for the shelters. She stressed that the program is not to be confused with the federal government’s refugee resettlement program. While she did not provide details of the program’s hurricane evacuation plan or security plan, she told commissioners HHS would consider the county’s concerns before making the final decision.
Following the teleconference, commissioners and county officials participated in a question and answer session with residents in the auditorium. Mack told the crowd he would not commit county law enforcement to a partnership with the federal government.
“I’m not going to give up my deputies to go work private security at this facility because their responsibility is to protect the people of Baldwin County,” Mack said.