‘The Christian thing to do.’ Columbus officials speak out on Fort Benning, undocumented kids

As federal officials toured Fort Benning Wednesday to determine if the Army post could temporarily house up to 5,000 undocumented immigrant children, they offered little information about how it got on the list with at least two other military installations.

Wednesday’s tour by Department of Defense (DoD) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) officials is considered a preliminary step in a longer process and does not mean any migrants would be placed at Fort Benning.

The federal officials and representatives from Fort Benning had little to say about why the post was tapped as a possible site for a “temporary emergency influx shelter” as described by the HHS.

Also, no information was provided about what parts at one of the country’s largest military installations might serve as temporary housing. In addition to Benning, Oklahoma’s Fort Sill and Montana’s Malmstrom Air Force Base are also being considered to house the children.

Columbus is a ‘really supportive neighbor’

However, several local elected officials said based on what they know so far, they would support Fort Benning officials if the base were to be selected to house the migrants.

Columbus Mayor Skip Henderson, who got a call Tuesday from HHS to let him know that Fort Benning was being considered, said officials didn’t tell him the specific sites at the base they were examining to house the children.

“Nobody has identified anything. I imagine they’ll let us know where it is and what they’re talking about,” Henderson told the Ledger-Enquirer. “But ultimately, this is an agreement between two federal agencies. Columbus just happens to be a really supportive neighbor.”

However, the mayor noted that the army installation went through downsizing after the loss of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team several years ago. Nearly 11,000 active-duty soldiers and nearly 11,000 government and contract civilians work on the base, which has 182,464 acres, according to a 2018 L-E report.

Henderson said, the city would provide support to Fort Benning, if it is selected to house migrants.

“The only thoughts I have on it right now is Columbus, as a community, has always supported Fort Benning and the soldiers,” Henderson said. “So, if Fort Benning needs anything from Columbus, we’ll do our best to try and provide it.”

Sanford Bishop, the Georgia congressman whose district includes Fort Benning, said that housing the children at Benning would be better than having them live in other overcrowded facilities.

“Ideally these children would be reunited with their parents, but this option is better than tents and overcrowded facilities ...” Bishop said. “Should the President choose this path, I’m confident our men and women at Fort Benning can handle this challenge. The Christian thing to do is to take care of these children as if they are our own.”

Sen. David Perdue staff speaks out

A spokeswoman for Sen. David Perdue said he was aware of the site visit and was waiting to receive more details from federal officials.

“Senator Perdue is aware of the site visit at Fort Benning and looks forward to receiving more details from Administration officials,” the statement reads, “The Senator has seen the crisis at our southern border firsthand and continues to work with the President, and his Senate colleagues, to find commonsense solutions to fix our immigration system.”

Benning’s examination comes nearly two months after Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan approved a request for HHS to look for housing options for up to 5,000 migrant children through Sept. 30. Last year, the military was asked to house up to 20,000 children but the space was never used, Reuters reports.

The children that could be housed at these facilities are ages 17 and under who were apprehended by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The children are unaccompanied by parents or legal guardians and have no lawful immigration status, according to the HHS.

Fort Sill previously held minors in 2014, Reuters reports. According to reports from Montana news station KPAX, both Sill and Malmstrom would remain unoccupied if selected but available for use if there is additional need for space — like a natural disaster such a hurricane that would affect the operating capacity at another shelter.

Federal officials have not made that distinction about Benning’s potential use.

The effort will have no impact on military readiness or the DoD’s ability to conduct primary missions. HHS use of military facilities is fully-reimbursable, HHS officials said.