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Government wants to extend temporary housing facility program

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FT. SILL, Okla._ The federal government wants to bring more immigrant children to Fort Sill and keep the facility running through the end of this year, at least.

The request from the Department of Health and Human Services comes less than one month into what was originally described as a four-month operation.

Much of this crisis has been pinned on the president, and Congressman Tom Cole (R-Okla.) says we need reform and we need it fast. In the meantime, however, some businesses in Lawton are cashing in on the sudden economic boom.

The possibility of more undocumented children coming to Fort Sill was anticipated by city officials when the shelter first opened on June 14.

“It’s not going to be over with in 120 days,” said Mayor Fred Fitch in early June. “They got to do something to process these children."

Many businesses in town say they’ll handle the demand as it continues or grows.

“For the economic impact for Lawton it's just amazing,” says Larry Byroad, general manager of the Hilton Garden Inn, 2nd Street.

For Congressman Cole, however, more illegal minors being housed at Fort Sill, or any military installation, is something he feared would eventually happen.

“You run the risk that these things, as I predicted, could easily evolve into permanent refugee centers,” says Rep. Cole, over the phone from Washington.

A temporary plan to house as many as 1,200 undocumented children at Fort Sill through October could now be extended through January 2015.

“The administration has precipitated this by leaving the impression throughout Central America that if you get to the United States you're going to be able to stay,” says Cole.

The current capacity at all three military sites total 3,600 children. That number could get beefed up to nearly 9,000. Since October, more than 50,000 unaccompanied minors have crossed the border. The influx of migrants has the federal government scrambling about where to place them all.

“We can't be the safety valve where people flee and people come continuously, because it will never stop,” says Cole.

Businesses in Lawton say the situation is not all negative. City officials estimate the economic impact in the Lawton-Fort Sill community has surpassed $1 million. Hotels, especially, are working to meet the temporary housing demand for government contractors working at the Fort Sill Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) Shelter.

“It’s a great influx for the hotel, the community, (and) the lodging industry in general,” says Byroad.

Congressman Cole argues the local economic impact doesn't compare to the toll this crisis is taking nationally. The president is asking congress for $3.7 billion to combat the ongoing immigration problem. Roughly half of that money, $1.8 billion, will be directed to DHHS to care for the illegal minors living in the country. Cole says we need to focus on not only managing the flow but reversing it and sending these kids home.

“Until they see people coming back, why in the world would they stop?"

Officials at Fort Sill said Friday they have not yet been asked by DHHS to house more children or the current children past the 120-day deadline, which will expire in October. As of Friday, DHHS said 1,105 undocumented children were living at the UAC shelter, and 622 other children have been released from the facility to family members or a verified sponsor.

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