Editor’s Note: This article has been updated with new comments from the Pentagon and Columbus Mayor Skip Henderson.
Concerns about troop “readiness” prompted the decision against temporarily sheltering at Fort Benning unaccompanied immigrant children who have been apprehended at the Southwest border, the Pentagon told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Wednesday.
Defense and U.S. Health and Human Services department officials visited the Columbus-area post last week to evaluate “unused property” there. The move followed an HHS request for the Pentagon to find space for up to 5,000 children at military bases.
RELATED: Government eyeing Fort Benning for new shelter for immigrant children
The Fort Benning property “is no longer available for use to provide temporary shelter” for the children, HHS said in a brief statement Tuesday. Fort Benning on Wednesday referred questions to the Defense Department.
“It was pulled from the list over concerns over potential readiness impacts,” said Maj. Chris Mitchell, a Pentagon spokesman.
Also Tuesday, HHS announced federal property at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana is not available for the same purpose. Fort Sill in Oklahoma, however, will be made ready to shelter up to 1,400 of the children in “hard-sided structures,” according to HHS. The same base sheltered immigrant children in 2014. HHS added that it is evaluating a U.S. Customs and Border Protection site in Santa Teresa, N.M., for a potential backup shelter site.
The federal government is scrambling to care for tens of thousands of children under 17 who are crossing the U.S.-Mexican border without parents and who have no legal status in the United States.
Many are fleeing deprivation and violence in their native countries and seeking asylum in the United States.
Once they are apprehended, the children are transferred to the care of the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement. That office cares for them until they are released to sponsors — usually parents or other relatives — while their immigration cases are heard.
Columbus Mayor Skip Henderson said HHS informed him of the decision by email Tuesday afternoon. The mayor had vowed that Columbus would support Fort Benning, if it were chosen as a shelter site. On Tuesday, he indicated the city was bracing for possible protests before HHS announced Fort Benning was no longer on its list.
“There were some opportunities to have some unwanted kind of peripheral events that followed it, if it was at Fort Benning,” he said. “All of those folks have to stay off the reservation, which means they are our responsibility. We didn’t know that any of that would happen. But the uncertainty of what might follow some type of decision like that — we don’t have to worry about that.”
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