The Department of Defense plans to start building tent encampments on two military bases in Texas to house migrant families apprehended at the border. Construction is expected to begin after the July 4 holiday.
The Pentagon said in a statement that the Department of Homeland Security asked the Defense Department to house and care for an "alien family population" of up to 12,000 people.
A U.S. official told NPR that a camp for migrant families would be located on Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, an Army post where migrant children were held during the Obama administration. Goodfellow Air Force Base, outside San Angelo, Texas, has been selected as a site for migrant children, the official said.
Advocates criticized the decision. "This is the Trump administration's next cruel plot — to imprison children and parents in military bases and tent cities," said Lorella Praeli, director of immigration policy at the American Civil Liberties Union.
"Under Trump, each new day brings forward a new attack to immigrants' constitutional rights. Families do not belong in detention — period," Praeli said.
DHS officials have not responded to requests for comment.
According to the Pentagon statement late Wednesday, DHS specifically requested that the Defense Department identify "any available facilities" that could house migrant families.
If facilities are not available, DHS asked the Defense Department to identify land it owns and to construct "semi-separate, soft-sided camp facilities capable of sheltering up to 4,000 people, at three separate locations."
The U.S. official told NPR Thursday that Fort Bliss has identified parcels of land for large tents. The facility expects to start putting them up after July 4, and complete them by the end of the month. The military will start putting up the tents, and then turn that effort over to contractors, the official said.
Goodfellow Air Force Base also plans to start putting up tents after July 4. Those tents could eventually hold up to 7,500 children, the official said.
The Pentagon says DHS wants to be able to house 2,000 people within 45 days. That's roughly the same number of migrant children who are still in government custody after being separated from their parents at the border.
Under the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy, many children were separated when their parents were charged with illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
This week, a federal judge in California ordered the Trump administration to reunify those children with their parents within 30 days, and children under 5 years old within 15 days. The children were separated when their parents were charged with illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
The ACLU, which brought the lawsuit in federal court against family separation, and other immigrant rights advocates say the administration has another option: It could release these migrant families into the U.S. to wait until their cases can be heard in immigration court, as the Obama administration often did.
They say that's cheaper and more humane than long-term detention for large numbers of asylum-seekers, mostly women and children, who are fleeing violence in Central America.
But President Trump has strongly criticized what he and conservative critics call "catch and release," which refers to the practice of releasing immigrants to live in the U.S. until their court hearings. Trump argues that once immigrants are released into society, "nobody ever comes back" for their court dates.
But Immigration and Customs Enforcement statistics show that nearly every immigrant with "alternatives to detention," such as GPS ankle monitors, does show up to court.
It's unclear how long migrant families would be detained on military bases.
Immigration authorities can't detain children for longer than 20 days in jail-like settings, under what's known as the Flores settlement, a court case that governs the detention of migrant children.
The Department of Justice is asking a judge to lift that limit, while the administration has called on Congress to do the same.
The Pentagon says that DHS indicated it prefers that any facility for migrants be built in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, or California "to enable access to and supervision of the sites and to comply with the Flores Settlement Agreement."
One Flores settlement provision says that reasonable efforts must be made to place minors in the geographic area where the majority of the migrants are apprehended. The U.S. official said DHS has asked that bases where migrants are held be "a short bus ride" from the border, within 250 miles.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
To another story meanwhile - President Trump's policies on migrant families, and they continue to fuel outrage across the country. There were protests today in Brownsville, Texas, to denounce the detention of migrant families apprehended at the southwest border. Hundreds also marched in Washington before staging a sit-in at a congressional office building.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Singing) Saying free all families now. Saying free all families now.
KELLY: And more rallies are planned in dozens of locations across the country on Saturday. But the Trump administration is not backing down. In fact, the Department of Defense has announced plans to build tent encampments on two military bases in Texas. These tent encampments would be to house migrant families.
Well, joining me now with a little more detail is NPR's Joel Rose. Hey, Joel.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.
KELLY: So we have talked before. We knew that the Trump administration has been exploring this idea of housing migrants on military bases. What do we know about how this plan is taking shape?
ROSE: The Pentagon says that the Department of Homeland Security asked the Defense Department to house and care for what they refer to as an alien family population. The number of migrants crossing the southern border - southwest border and asking for asylum has been going up in recent months. So this plan would house up to 12,000 people across three different locations.
A U.S. official tells NPR that a camp for migrant families would be located at the Fort Bliss Army Base in El Paso, Texas. And another site, Goodfellow Air Force Base outside San Angelo, Texas, has been selected as a site for migrant children. And the official said they'll start building large tents there after the July 4th holiday. And the Department of Defense has been asked to prepare for 2,000 beds within just the next 45 days.
KELLY: Joel, what's the history here? Has the U.S. government - has the Defense Department ever done something like this?
ROSE: Well, the Obama administration did house children at Fort Bliss during a previous surge in the number of migrants coming into the country, and it set up temporary family shelters as well. But immigrant rights activists say this time is different for a couple of reasons. One is the sheer scale. And they're also concerned that the administration is planning for long-term detention in these facilities.
The administration has been ordered to reunite about 2,000 children who were separated from their parents at the southwest border within the next 30 days and even less for younger kids. And there's a concern among activists that those families are now going to be reunified and then detained in these in these tent camps on military bases.
ROSE: And all of this is likely to be fought about in court going forward.
KELLY: And then outside of court, we mentioned these protests today, protests against family separation and detention. Are these protests also targeting this plan for the military bases?
ROSE: Yeah. The protesters sound horrified about this plan. Some have been comparing these military tent camps to Japanese internment camps that the government set up during World War II. Activists argue that these migrants today are asylum-seekers, many of them women and children who do have a legal right to make asylum claims in the U.S. Faiz Shakir is the national political director of the ACLU. And he spoke today at a protest in Brownsville, Texas.
FAIZ SHAKIR: No families belong in jails. No families belong in military bases. When you suggest that you're going to put them in military bases, you're suggesting that they're terrorists. You're suggesting that somehow they've committed some terrible, heinous crimes. These are people who are fleeing gangs and violence.
ROSE: The Trump administration of course paints a very different picture of lawlessness and crime at the border, and clearly wants to stem the tide of asylum-seekers who are showing up.
KELLY: All right, that is NPR's Joel Rose reporting on all the latest twists and turns happening at the border and with immigration policy. Joel, thanks very much.
ROSE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.