A plan from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to assess the feasibility of housing unaccompanied illegal immigrant children at two airfields in Baldwin County is being met with hostility by elected officials at the federal and local levels because of concerns about the lack of infrastructure at the sites and the plan’s potential impact on the county.

ORR, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, notified officials of the assessments in a letter last week. In the letter Rose Hacking, an HHS representative, said ORR is trying to identify locations to provide shelter for potential increases in unaccompanied children apprehended at the Mexican border.

The letter notified officials HHS would soon schedule site assessments at the Naval Outlying Fields in Silverhill and Josephine to determine the feasibility of using the sites as semipermanent shelters if HHS exceeds its current shelter capacity. Wolf Field is located north of Bay La Launch in Josephine; it was built prior to 1945 and used as a satellite airfield for NAS Pensacola. The Silverhill field is located south of Baldwin County 54 and north of State Highway 104, west of River Road South.

“Planning for temporary increased shelter is a prudent step to ensure that ORR is able to meet its legal responsibility to provide shelter for unaccompanied children referred to its care by the Department of Homeland Security and to allow the U.S. Border Patrol to continue its vital national security mission to prevent illegal migration, trafficking and protect the borders of the United States,” Hacking’s letter reads.

According to Hacking’s letter HHS 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, and the semipermanent structures would be used only if the department were to experience a “substantial” increase in unaccompanied children.

Andrea Helling, ORR chief of staff, said the temporary shelters are typically used for roughly 30 days while the unaccompanied children are evaluated in the court system. She stressed none of the children who may come to Baldwin County sites would impact the county school system or the local health care system.

“One thing that is important to note, it is our responsibility to care for these children,” Helling said. “They don’t go into the schools, they don’t go to the doctors in the county, they never leave our campus. There is no impact of additional children on the surrounding community.”

An HHS spokesperson said representatives from the department will visit the sites in the next few days. The representative stressed the visit is only an assessment of the feasibility of using the sites and said no final decision has been made regarding the use of the properties.

“[Department of Defense] officials will join the HHS staff as they tour the property available for HHS’s potential use, but HHS will make the final determination about whether the land is an appropriate site for the temporary shelter of Unaccompanied Children,” the spokesperson said.

According to Helling, the assessors will inspect the sites to determine the ease of installing temporary infrastructure and buildings. They also consider each sites’ proximity to airports and the amount of land available for construction.

Baldwin County Commission President Tucker Dorsey said county officials have not been told how many children may be moved to the site in the event it is used.

“Forget the fact that these would be children who are in the country illegally and the federal government doesn’t properly enforce immigration law,” Dorsey said. “Apart from that, this would be a logistical nightmare for us and them.”

Dorsey said while both sites are large, the federal government would have to install infrastructure and construct buildings at a great cost because the sites currently amount to nothing more than large fields with landing strips.

“There’s no sewer, no electricity, no buildings, nothing is there,” Dorsey said. “It would be a huge financial burden for the federal government to come in and install all the infrastructure. It just doesn’t make sense.”

Commissioner Chris Elliott said the fields were designed for pilots to practice taking off and landing, and there was never any intent of housing people there for any period of time. However, because the airfields are owned by the federal government, county officials won’t have much say in what happens there. Elliott said county officials will express their concerns to the federal government, but the final decision will be made at the federal level.

“These are federal property and the federal government can basically do what it wants to do there,” Elliott said. “We can make noise and we can try to fight it, but ultimately they will make the decision. The biggest problem is, there is just a hayfield there and not much else. For the federal government to come in and install a bunch of infrastructure for these ‘semipermanent’ shelters sounds crazy to me.”

At the federal level, Republican Sen. Richard Shelby said the plan amounted to a “blatant disregard for our immigration laws” by the Obama administration. Shelby said the properties should be used for the armed forces.

“The Obama administration has once again shown an interest in potentially using Alabama’s military installations as temporary housing for illegal immigrants,” Shelby said. “These Department of Defense properties should be used for those men and women working to keep our nation safe — not to house illegal immigrants.”

Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Fairhope) said he also opposes the effort because it is “not in the best interest of the children or our military.”
“These airfields were not designed to house anyone, especially young children,” Byrne said. “My office will work to prevent this flawed proposal from becoming anything more than just a suggestion.”

Elliott said the sites are “woefully inadequate” to house children, or anyone, and the federal government should consider alternative sites.

“All that’s out there are tractors and hay,” Elliott said.