Long Beach gives feds the OK to temporarily house 1,000 migrant children in Convention Center

Federal officials now have Long Beach’s permission to use the city’s Convention Center to temporarily house up to 1,000 migrant children.

The Long Beach City Council voted unanimously at its Tuesday, April 6, meeting to allow the City Manager to execute agreements with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to operate a shelter for unaccompanied minors who are en route to be reunified with family members or sponsors.

The details of those agreements — including how much rent the federal government would pay to use the facility — still must be negotiated. But the item the panel approved would allow the site to operate for up to 120 days, and Mayor Robert Garcia has repeatedly emphasized that the closure date would be no later than Aug. 2.

While the timing on opening a shelter is unclear, Long Beach’s director of Disaster Preparedness, Reginald Harrison, said during Tuesday’s meeting that there is “a real sense of urgency” because of the recent surge in unaccompanied minors, fleeing violence and poverty in Central America, crossing the southern border. Border authorities encountered nearly 19,000 children without a parent last month, an all-time monthly high, Harrison said.

Garcia, who’s been in contact with HHS officials, said children could begin arriving at the Convention Center within a week or two.

The idea of using the Convention Center — which has largely sat vacant amid the coronavirus pandemic — to shelter migrant children was met with mixed reactions from community members.

Long Beach resident Laura Brewer said during public comment that the city should not involve itself in what officials have said in the past is a federal issue.

“Didn’t local officials say that immigration is a federal issue?” Brewer asked. “And weren’t local police told not to ask about immigration status nor to cooperate with ICE? So let’s be consistent. This is a federal issue. We should not get involved as a city. Let the Biden administration either enforce the federal laws or use only federal facilities to house the result of the problem they allowed to occur.”

Others who spoke said they also opposed the facility — but on the grounds, they said, that they believed the Biden administration’s current push to establish shelters are simply the creation of more detention facilities by another name.

James Suazo, executive director of Long Beach Forward, said his group and dozens of other activist organizations in Long Beach don’t support the city participating in what they see as a punitive federal immigration system that’s in need of significant reform.

But if a migrant shelter is going to open up in Long Beach, he said, it will be important for the city to ensure the facility is run with transparency and accountability.

“As a community, we are demanding transparency in the process and for this facility to be closed within 90 days and for all children to be reunited with family members in an expeditious manner,” he said. “While we do not support this facility, we want to be clear: We will make sure all children are safe.”

Long Beach, though, may not be alone in helping reunite children with family members.

That’s because Los Angeles County’s Board of Supervisors on Tuesday voted to ask federal authorities for permission to visit facilities housing unaccompanied minors — the Long Beach site is the only one within the county — and have the Department of Children and Family Services find local relatives for those children. DCFS would also look for foster families to take in minors who don’t have local family members.

“With Long Beach moving forward,” said Supervisor Kathryn Barger, “time is of the essence for us to provide all the support we can.”

The vast majority of people who spoke during Long Beach’s City Council meeting, meanwhile, said they supported the opportunity for the seaside metropolis to offer humanitarian relief to children in need, even as many said they understood others’ concerns.

“The people protesting this emergency shelter on the grounds that these children should be with their loved ones are correct,” resident Maricela de Rivera said. “But we can’t say no to the imperfect to the detriment of migrant children.

“Let’s fulfill our moral obligation to do better by the migrant children,” she added, “currently in our country.”

While public comment in Tuesday’s meeting was mostly in support of the idea, some council members said they received many calls from their constituents who are opposed.

Councilwoman Suzie Price, for example, said she believed many of the residents who called her office were not aware of her own background; Price’s family is from Iran, and while she was born in the U.S., her mother brought her back to Iran when she was a baby. Price didn’t return to the U.S. until she was 7, and at that point, her family was told that if they returned to Iran, they would not be allowed to leave.

“The children that are going to be housed at the Convention Center face a reality in their home country that is unimaginable to most Americans,” Price said. “They face violations sexually and otherwise, to themselves and to their families. They have violence all around them.”

Still, Price said, many of the concerns she heard — such as whether Long Beach would foot the bill, and if the city’s convention business would be impacted — were valid.

But Garcia and city staff addressed those worries during Tuesday’s meeting. Any costs Long Beach incurs will be reimbursed by the federal government, Garcia said, and Long Beach doesn’t have any convention business until the fall, so the Aug. 2 closure date will ensure those events can still be held.

But those weren’t the only points of contention in Tuesday’s discussion.

Councilwoman Stacy Mungo raised a number of points that she said she hopes will be ironed out as Long Beach enters into an agreement, including ensuring children are being reunified with family as quickly as possible and aren’t moving from shelter to shelter. When the Long Beach site closes, Mungo said, she wants to be sure kids aren’t shuttled to another similar facility.

“There are a lot of unanswered questions that I know we need to bring back to the dais and to the community,” she said. “I think that many of the concerns that have come in are really revolving around just a lack of information.”

There were some questions, though, that had clear answers.

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