A federal proposal to open a shelter for up to 430 unaccompanied migrant children in the Inland Empire is drawing condemnation from local immigrant advocates and elected officials.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement, the federal agency in charge of caring for migrant children who arrive in the country without a legal guardian, announced the proposal last month on the Federal Business Opportunities website. The agency said it’s seeking to lease up to 91,000 square feet within an area spanning Riverside and San Bernardino counties. The facility would include space for 215 bedrooms, clinical offices, a recreational space and classrooms, according to the announcement. It’s estimated opening date is in December 2020.
The plan comes as the number of undocumented immigrant children in U.S. custody surges toward record levels, straining the existing shelter capacity. As a result, the Trump administration is seeking to expand shelter space.
But those plans don’t sit well with congressional representatives for the area. In a letter to the federal office, four Democratic members of Congress for the Inland Empire expressed dismay at the proposal, saying they were shocked the agency hadn’t notified Congress or the community of its plans. They also pointed to reports of at least seven migrant children dying in U.S. custody in the past year, and of kids being held in unsanitary conditions without adequate access to medical care.
A report by Disability Rights California earlier this year also found that many migrant kids in federal facilities and programs aren’t getting the treatment they need for post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health conditions that are often related to violence and trauma they’ve suffered.
“Time after time, the Trump administration has subjected immigrant children to prolonged detention in horrible conditions, and we have serious concerns about any plans that would allow these abuses to happen in our community,” wrote Reps. Pete Aguilar (D-Redlands), Mark Takano (D-Riverside), Norma Torres (D-Pomona), and Raul Ruiz (D-Palm Desert).
The federal office “is tasked with the responsibility of caring for migrant children,” the representatives wrote. “Yet, the Trump Administration has left children living in inadequate facilities that are similar to jails.”
Local immigrant rights activists expressed similar concerns, calling the proposed shelter a “detention camp.” Lizbeth Abeln, who works for the Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice, said her organization currently monitors conditions at another Inland Empire immigrant detention center, the Adelanto Detention Facility, which holds adults. Her coalition recently helped file a lawsuit in federal court alleging that immigrants with mental health conditions and physical disabilities have been mistreated at Adelanto and other detention centers. She’s worried that the proposed facility would treat children similarly.
“Overwhelmingly we’ve seen a lack of medical care. Oftentimes people have very severe illnesses and they’re not being treated,” Abeln said. “We’re against this new proposal. We’ve seen the consequences and the impact that detention centers have in our region.”
If the shelter goes ahead, it would be the largest facility for unaccompanied migrant children in the state, confirmed Rodger Butler, a spokesman for the California Department of Social Services. Currently, fifteen group homes in the state contract with the federal Refugee Office, he said in an email. The homes are located in Solano, Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties. The largest currently licensed residential group home in California has capacity for 184 children, Butler said.
To open the proposed Inland Empire facility, the federal office would need a license from the state. As of Aug. 29, the Department of Social Services had not received a license application, Butler said.
In recent years, California has been moving away from placing children in big group homes, in favor of foster care and smaller homes. Likewise, federal law requires the Refugee Office to prioritize placing migrant children in foster care rather than large-scale institutional settings because it’s a better way to ensure the children’s needs are met, the congressional representatives noted in their letter.
“Transitional foster care is better suited to provide individualized attention to children than a large-scale shelter,” they wrote. “This will help children be placed with sponsors quickly. That is why we are gravely concerned about the proposed shelter construction in the Inland Empire.”