U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-District 4, said he had more questions than answers after speaking with government officials Monday morning about the possibility of the shuttered Ouachita Job Corps Center in Royal being used to house children who enter the country without parents or guardians.
Westerman said officials he spoke with from the Department of Health and Human Services were unable to allay his concerns about the facility's potential use as a temporary shelter for minors apprehended by the Department of Homeland Security at U.S. borders without parents or other legal guardians in tow.
"One of the things they didn't know was who would be coming in under the HHS scenario that would use the center as a temporary shelter," Westerman said, explaining that he wasn't notified about HHS' intentions until Friday. "I had a conference call this morning with folks in D.C. and quizzed them about several things.
"I asked if these children are already here. They said they have adequate facilities for the ones who are here, so I asked them when they anticipate the new arrivals. They couldn't answer that, but they said they expected a surge in refugees at some point in time that they needed to find facilities for.
"I pressed them on why they're expecting a surge with a new administration coming in that says it's going to be more strict on immigration laws and border patrol. They never answered me. They just said they're preparing for more unaccompanied children. They couldn't tell me where they're from or when they would be here."
HHS' public affairs department said in an email Monday that no decision has been made to use the facility, which is only being assessed at this point.
Westerman and the state's U.S. Senate delegation issued a joint news release Monday condemning the possible use of the Ouachita facility as a shelter for unaccompanied children. Westerman said he went to Royal Monday morning to pose questions to federal officials touring the site.
"I basically went there to meet with them," Westerman said. "I didn't stick around for the tour, I'd already seen it twice. I wanted to make sure who was there and for what purposes. It was lower level HHS officials and there was a representative from the (General Services Administration) and a contractor HHS is using to evaluate the site.
"They were lower level officials doing what somebody in D.C. told them to do. I don't think they're at fault of anything."
He said after closing the Job Corps facility earlier this year, the Department of Labor notified HHS of its availability despite a Dec. 5 memorandum from the Arkansas National Guard that indicated its intent to lease the space from the Department of Agriculture.
Westerman said the USDA and Arkansas National Guard have been discussing the possibility of using the Royal location for the Guard's Arkansas Youth Challenge program.
"They've just about outgrown their facility at Camp Robinson," Westerman said. "When the Department of Labor closed down the Job Corps, we thought it might be a good location for Youth Challenge. HHS was fully aware that the National Guard was looking at the facility."
Westerman said it's unclear which agency will decide the location's future use and questioned DOL's rationale for closing the Forest Service's Job Corps program.
"They claimed it was a matter of poor performance, of not having enough students in the program or enough students finishing the program," he said. "Ironically, it was DOL's responsibility to recruit students to the program. They're shifting blame to the Forest Service for not running a good program when it was strictly a DOL function to recruit students to the program."
According to HHS' email, children age 17 and younger who are unaccompanied by parents or other legal guardians when apprehended at U.S. borders are placed in the custody of the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement within 72 hours.
ORR is legally required to provide for their care and custody until they are released to an appropriate sponsor, usually a relative, while their immigration case is being processed. The children don't attend local schools or integrate into the local community while in ORR's custody.
"ORR works in close coordination with local officials on security and safety of the children and the community," HHS said. "The impact of these shelters on the local community is minimal. Children spend an average of 35 days at the shelter."
Westerman said officials he spoke with Monday at the Job Corps center said the facility could be converted to house the children within a month but couldn't provide a timeline on when that process would begin. The joint news release he issued with Republican U.S. Sens. Tom Cotton and John Boozman of Arkansas urged HHS not to bring unaccompanied children to the area.
"The Department of Health and Human Services should not use the Ouachita facility to shelter unaccompanied illegal immigrant minors," the release said. "This is irresponsible and against the wishes of Arkansans who were not consulted about this decision. HHS is unable to provide basic information about who may reside at this facility, where these immigrants come from, or how long this shelter will last, and the potential risk to public safety is enormous.
"That is why we are calling on HHS to immediately halt any plans to use this facility as an immigration shelter. There are safer options for this facility that would be better for the community and Arkansas."Local on 12/20/2016