Thousands of undocumented children could be housed at Fort Benning. What’s next?

Defense and Health and Human Services officials are visiting Fort Benning near Columbus, Ga., Wednesday to assess what buildings or land on base could be used to potentially house thousands of undocumented immigrant children.

Fort Benning is one of three bases, including Fort Sill in Oklahoma and Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, currently under consideration to house up to 5,000 unaccompanied migrant children.

“At the request of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and with the support of the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), HHS will be conducting a site assessment of unused DoD property for potential future use as temporary emergency influx shelter for unaccompanied alien children,” HHS said in an emailed statement to the Ledger-Enquirer.

The initial site visit happening at Fort Benning today is the first step in a series of back and forth negotiations between DoD and HHS, and due to the number of decisions still ahead, does not mean that migrants will be housed at the base in the immediate future.

The need to expand to additional holding facilities is a result of a surge in unaccompanied children crossing into the U.S.

Last month, the Department of Homeland Security reported that in 2019, almost 110,000 migrants had attempted to enter the U.S. illegally in April, and the vast majority were families or unaccompanied children. For comparison 51,000 total tried to enter the U.S. illegally in April 2018.

Officials have already conducted initial site visits at Fort Sill and Malmstrom AFB.

In those previous visits, the officials looked at what buildings were already available, or what areas of land could be used to erect tents or temporary buildings.

HHS then used the information from the initial site visit to generate a request to DoD for support, whether that’s DoD construction of tents, or other support, such as perimeter security.

In the case of Fort Sill and Malmstrom, DoD has evaluated HHS’ requests and determined they can be supported, a defense official said.

That acceptance then puts the ball back in HHS’ court; the agency has to submit a formal request for DoD’s support.

This is not the first time military bases have been used to house unaccompanied migrant children who crossed into the U.S. illegally.

Between 2012 and 2017, almost 16,000 unaccompanied children were similarly held at Texas’ Fort Bliss and Lackland Air Force Base; Fort Sill; Naval Base Ventura County in California and Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico.

Nick Wooten contributed to this report. @nwooten@mclatchy.com