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SALT LAKE CITY — In an effort to head off a repeat of the chaos at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2014 when thousands of unaccompanied children fled Central America, the Department of Health and Human Services will open new facilities this year to temporarily house youths entering the country.
Two of the five planned facilities are in the Intermountain West, one in Lakewood, Colorado, which will be able to house up to 1,000 youths; and another at Holloman Air Force Base in southern New Mexico, which will be able to serve some 400 minors.
HHS spokesman Mark Weber said the largest crush of unaccompanied children entered the United States in 2014. That year, more than 53,500 were released to sponsors nationwide, according to HHS data.
Once youths are apprehended by Border Patrol agents, the agency has 72 hours to turn them over to HHS. The department assumes their care until they can turned over to sponsors, usually family members who care for them until their cases can be adjudicated, Weber said.
In 2014, 119 youths were released to sponsors in Utah, most of them through Catholic Community Services of Utah's foster care program, said Brent Platt, director of the Utah Division of Child and Family Services.
Sixty-two youths were released to Utah sponsors the following year. For the first two months of the new federal fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, 23 children have been released to sponsors in the Beehive State, according to HHS statistics.
The past two years, numbers of unaccompanied youths crossing the border has dropped significantly, but HHS officials have observed an uptick off arrivals during the first two months of this fiscal year, some 10,000 children.
"We haven't run out of capacity to take care of kids, and we still have room. But given that this is the time of year the rates are usually the lowest for the year, what does this suggest for the spring? We have no idea," Weber said.
"The reason for standing up Lakewood and a couple other facilities is just to make sure we have the capacity if we need it, so that we don't see children backed up at Border Patrol facilities again."
After the crush of unaccompanied youths from the impoverished and violence-plagued countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, which peaked in the summer of 2014, HHS began a deliberate planning process to set up systems to address sudden influxes of youths entering the United States, Weber said.
The plan envisions that children would stay in the facilities on average 32 days. The children will receive medical screenings and vaccinations. They also will receive education, recreation and family reunification services.
The new facilities are intended to serve new arrivals, not children already living with sponsors while their immigration cases are adjudicated, Weber said.
Most unaccompanied minors in Utah are with families, said Tony Yapias, advocate for Utah's Latino community.
As a group, unaccompanied youths can be difficult to serve because few meet the federal definition of asylee, which would allow them to remain in the United States because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution. The vast majority are returned to their home countries, Yapias said.
We have to find a better way to deal with this (immigration) issue. I don't know what the answer is, but our system doesn't work.
–Tony Yapias, advocate for Utah's Latino community
With limited resources to assist people with immigration issues, Yapias said he is torn between helping established families and unaccompanied youths who need safe places to live until their immigration status can be determined. It's just one more symptom of a broken immigration system, he said.
"We have to find a better way to deal with this issue. I don't know what the answer is, but our system doesn't work," Yapias said.
Creating large-scale temporary facilities for unaccompanied youths is "a Catch-22," he said, particularly during a presidential election season when some candidates are calling for drastic changes in immigration policy.
"You look good if you do it. You look bad if you do it," Yapias said.
Weber said the intent is to build some cushion in the system in the event another large wave of youths from unaccompanied Central America shows up on the U.S.-Mexican border this year.
HHS officials toured a number of federal facilities across the country to find suitable and available space for the temporary facilities.
After finding space in Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Florida, where the largest facility will be established, HHS started planning educational, medical and other services for the children, he said.
HHS operates standard shelters in 12 states, but the agency "scrambled" to find places for thousands of unaccompanied youths in 2014, Weber said.
"This time we're going to have capacity. There were plenty of lessons learned in 2014. When you see the trends heading the way they are, we need to be prepared," he said.