Confusion, questions and concerns — along with offers of support — have spread in the communities around Joint Base Lewis-McChord since word got out that the military installation could be used to house hundreds of children from Central America who have crossed the Mexican border unaccompanied into the United States.
Though it remained unclear Tuesday whether the base would actually be used for that purpose, a conference call was scheduled for Wednesday morning between the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), which made the announcement about the base in June, and representatives of the local communities.
The conference call is in response to a letter written by Lakewood Mayor Don Anderson to the office of U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, D-Olympia, whose district includes cities surrounding the base.
The letter expressed concerns that DHHS had not provided information or answered questions about how housing immigrant children at the base would impact surrounding communities.
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In his letter, Anderson said he was worried about minors introducing health risks such as H1N1 flu virus, scabies, tuberculosis, measles and other communicable diseases.
“Decisions are being made in the dark that impact our community and we want to responsibly address those areas of concerns,” Anderson said.
“We are not objecting to these individuals being housed and humanely treated,” he said. “We’re not trying to stand in the way. We are concerned about what happens next; what burdens are going to be pushed on state and local government; and how are we going to deal with that.”
At the same time, local social and religious organizations, including those that specialize in legal and psychological counseling, have come forward with offers to support the children.
Michael Ramos, executive director for The Church Council of Greater Seattle, said he wants the children to know they are welcome.
“If the children come, we stand ready to help,” he said.
Steilacoom Mayor Ron Lucas and members of Heck’s office, whose district includes cities surrounding the base, will also be part of the conference call.
The U.S. Department of Defense is helping DHHSfind temporary shelters at military bases for thousands of immigrant children detained after entering the U.S. illegally.
DHHS already has placed children at three military bases: Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio; Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme, Calif.; and Fort Sill in Lawton, Okla.
Defense Department spokesman Tom Crosson said JBLM is on a shortlist of other bases being considered to house children.
If DHHS picks JBLM, it could be the fourth and last base to get children, Crosson said.
Anderson said his understanding is that facilities that would be used at JBLM are barracks from the World War II era, last used by cadets as a Reserve Officers Training Corps summer camp.
Kenneth Wolfe, public-affairs deputy director for the Children and Families Administration within DHHS, said in an email that when children come through the department they’re given exams and childhood vaccinations to protect against communicable diseases. They’re also screened for TB and receive a mental-health exam.
He said if children have a communicable disease or have been exposed to one, they are placed in a facility that could serve as a quarantine.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not believe the children arriving at the border pose a public-health risk to communities, he said. According to the human-services department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, the majority of unaccompanied minors come from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Ecuador.
The Defense Department has authorized temporary facilities to stay open for 120 days.
Zahra Farah: 206-464-3195 or firstname.lastname@example.org