HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE — The first group of unaccompanied minors from different parts of Central America arrived at Holloman Air Force Base early Monday morning.
The children come primarily from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Alamogordo Chamber of Commerce President Mike Espiritu said up to 250 children made their way to Alamogordo from different facilities around the United States and are now under a strict schedule for the next month.
He said the children have been placed in groups of eight and are being taken care of by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
“They were placed in groups of eight, that ratio is one adult for every eight children. They had orientation, received clothes and because they got in so early they let them go to bed to sleep. When they woke up, their beds were made and they had brunch,” Espiritu said. “In the afternoon some of the kids were playing in the yard. One of their main goals (HHS) to ensure that every child has a bed and unite them with sponsors as soon as possible. All children at Holloman came from other facilities from the U.S.”
A total of 700 refugee children will be temporarily sheltered at Holloman. The children are set to be housed in a vacant building on the base previously used by the 4th Space Surveillance Squadron.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter directed Holloman Air Force Base to be the first of three temporary shelters to open in New Mexico, Colorado and Florida. These shelters are in addition to those already opened outside Dallas in December.
Espiritu said most of the children come with a family member’s name and phone number so case works from the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) can pair them with sponsor families.
He also said HHS is still hiring more staff to assist with the immigrant children.
“The hiring process is still going on, they are still looking to staff more to capacity. We might do another job fair in Alamogordo. The employees will come from all over,” Espiritu said. “What they can’t fill from Alamogordo they’ll also go to Las Cruces and El Paso. They’re already bringing people from El Paso in buses to take care of the kids. Soon there will be some tours for local officials and one for local state holders.”
Espiritu said the children will be here on average for 32 days and are between the ages of 14 and 17. He said HHS will be responsible for the children’s well-being when it comes to sponsorship, their health and schooling.
“They won’t be here a long time, and still no impact on our schools, Holloman, or our community,” he said. “There’s a big difference between this project and the Artesia project. This is done by the Department of Health and Human Services and their mission is to take care of people. Unlike the one in Artesia where Homeland Security was in charge, the Health and Human Services’ mission is to take care of the kids and make sure they are being taken care of properly. They work diligently on those sponsors for the children and to make sure they’re safe.”
Interim City Manager George Straface said from the City’s standpoint they are supportive of the concept as long as it does not interfere with the city’s population.
“From the City’s standpoint, we are supportive of the concept of trying to help these children. We’re very alert to the fact that their presence should not impact our population or citizens,” Straface said. “I think the humanitarian effort of HHS is admirable.”
He said the way the situation has been organized has been very professional and City officials have very little concern.
“In terms of how I feel now, I don’t think it’s changed since I first heard about it. My understanding is that they’re not going to be in our schools. The Health and Human Services Department is going to take care of all their health issues and immunizations and they’re only here for about a month,” Straface said. “The way it’s been organized has been pretty professional. The concerns we have is very minimal.”
He said the City has been helping indirectly by assisting HHS with job fairs and contractors that come through.
“To my knowledge, we may help a little indirectly with the contractors who come in, for example, they have used the Willie Estrada Civic Center for job fairs, they paid for that,” Straface said. “It has been nothing direct nor do I believe it should. The way it’s been set up makes a lot of sense and it minimizes the impact on the community.”
Both Straface and Espiritu plan on visiting the shelter sometime within the next week.
“I have not had direct communication with the Holloman leadership but I have interest in doing that and I intend to request to get a tour sometime in the next week,” Straface said.
Although feedback from the community has been mostly positive and supportive some people question the government’s mandate to shelter the immigrant children on U.S. soil.
Alamogordo resident Windy Franks said New Mexico should take care of its own citizens first before taking care of other people from other countries.
“New Mexico can’t afford to care for its own citizens. How can we be expected to care for other countries’ citizens?” Franks asked. “Until New Mexico’s licenses are acceptable to the federal government, shouldn’t there be a halt on adding more jobs like caregivers for all those kids, to the state? Our state is in trouble for allowing illegals to get licenses, so the feds want to send more illegals to us? It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”
Espiritu said at this time HHS is not accepting donations. HHS is handling all responsibility at this point.
“We’re not accepting donations, we don’t have any need for volunteers at this point. The kids are being taken care of completely. I’ve had hundreds of calls and emails from people offering assistance from clothing, to bilingual help and psychiatric services. Everything you can think of people have generously offered to help the children,” he said. “They have told us that they have everything taken care of. It’s great to see the out pour from the people in the community but at this point unless things change, they’re in good shape.”
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