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Fort Drum eyed as site for housing refugee children

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FORT DRUM — Vacant space on the base has been identified as a possible location for housing refugee children who arrive in the United States unaccompanied by an adult.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Administration for Children and Families, under its Office of Refugee Settlement, operates a program for minor refugees who do not have a parent or guardian to care for them. Children placed in the program are offered foster care and other benefits.

HHS has opened centers for children at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, Naval Base Ventura County in California and Fort Sill in Oklahoma and is scouting for additional locations, according to Lt. Col. Tom C. Crosson, spokesman for the Department of Defense’s Office for the Secretary of Defense.

Col. Crosson said Fort Drum was previously identified as a military base that had vacant space that could accommodate children, but that space is now being occupied by reservists and National Guardsmen until at least August, meaning no decision about placing children at Fort Drum will be made before then.

“Bottom line is that Fort Drum was once a potential base and it could be a potential base, but we’re not there yet,” he said. “It is a site that meets the initial criteria of having a vacant facility.”

Col. Crosson likened the Department of Defense to being a landlord for another federal agency, HHS. He said the Army has no involvement in the program, which typically is overseen by faith-based organizations.

He said the three other bases house 600 to 1,000 refugees, but he was not able to say whether a similar number could be projected for Fort Drum. An HHS spokesman could not be reached for comment.

Col. Crosson said “it is a process” to select a base for the refugees, with HHS officials conducting site surveys and figuring out whether there are enough people available to staff it. One business, Occupational Health Connections, has posted an online ad for multiple positions at Fort Drum, including nurses, counselors and housekeepers. Col. Crosson said, “It’s not surprising that you’re going to be seeing the want ads,” although he could only speculate as to why the company was posting an ad offering Fort Drum positions, suggesting that the company wants to gauge the local interest in employment should Fort Drum be selected as a refugee site.

The idea of housing refugees at Fort Drum is not novel. In 1981, President Reagan needed a temporary home for nearly 10,000 Haitian refugees fleeing their homeland along with several hundred Cubans.

The president decided on Fort Drum, which was then mainly a National Guard and Army Reserve training center. In exchange for his support of the idea, the late Rep. David O’B. Martin received presidential assurances of accelerated military spending at the post.

The Haitians never came north, but the promised expansion of Fort Drum went forward.

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