WASHINGTON (NewsNation Now) — The U.S. government is evaluating a Virginia military base as a possible site to house unaccompanied migrant children amid a sharp rise in migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, according to a Department of Health and Human Services notice seen by Reuters.
A Pentagon spokesman confirmed that Fort Lee, a U.S. Army facility in Virginia, was under consideration.
The number of migrant children arriving at the southwest border has increased in recent months, putting pressure on HHS-run shelters that house the children before they are released to parents or other sponsors in the United States.
In January, U.S. Border Patrol caught 7,300 unaccompanied minors crossing the border illegally, the highest number of arrests in the month of January in at least a decade and up from 4,500 a month earlier.
HHS had reduced its available bed space for unaccompanied children by 40% to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
In the notice, HHS said it urgently needs to find more shelter space for unaccompanied minors. The department said it must “aggressively” find solutions for the rising number of children entering the country amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
U.S. officials are hurrying to find housing and speed up releases of a growing number of unaccompanied children arriving at the border after Biden exempted them in February from a policy under former President Donald Trump, known as Title 42. That policy, issued on COVID-19-related public health grounds, allows U.S. authorities to rapidly expel migrants caught at the border.
Under U.S. law, children under the age of 18 caught crossing the border without a parent or legal guardian are labeled “unaccompanied” and must be transferred from Border Patrol facilities to HHS shelters within 72 hours.
The law outlines separate procedures for children from Mexico and Canada that allow them to be more easily removed from the country.
Most children arriving without a parent or legal guardian are from Mexico and Central America.
The United States has used military bases to house unaccompanied children during previous spikes in arrivals, including during a surge of unaccompanied minors in 2014 under former President Barack Obama.
The Biden administration also plans to convert two family detention centers in Texas into facilities that would quickly process incoming migrant families and allow them to be released within 72 hours pending the outcome of their cases, according to two people familiar with the plan.
HHS said that as of March 4 the agency had 7,700 unaccompanied minors in custody, the highest level since 2019. As of last week, it had roughly 7,700 beds available.
Earlier this week, the Department of Homeland Security announced new measures in President Joe Biden’s effort to reunite more than 500 migrant children and parents separated under Trump’s “zero-tolerance” border policy.
DHS said the U.S. could pay for transportation, health care, legal services, and career and educational services for migrant families that were separated.
The Biden administration will also consider bringing deported parents back to the United States to be reunited with their children, an option outlined in Biden’s Feb. 2 executive order creating the family reunification task force. They could also be reunited in their country of origin.
On Friday, Trump released a statement criticizing Biden’s immigration policy, calling on the president to “act immediately to end the border nightmare.”
“The spiraling tsunami at the border is overwhelming local communities, depleting budgets, crowding hospitals, and taking jobs from legal American workers,” the former president said.
Biden said last week that shutting the door on legal immigrants “does not advance the interests of the United States.”
“To the contrary, it harms the United States, including by preventing certain family members of United States citizens and lawful permanent residents from joining their families here. It also harms industries in the United States that utilize talent from around the world,” Biden said.
Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report. All reporting by Reuters’ Ted Hesson and Phil Stewart and AP’s Julie Watson.