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Immigrant kids won’t be housed in Lakewood

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Feds reverse course, scrap controversial plan

By Gabrielle Porter

The federal government has abandoned plans to convert parts of a Lakewood office building to house up to 1,000 undocumented immigrant children, citing both time and money challenges.

The Administration of Children and Families had planned to use the Government Services Administration building at the Denver Federal Center as temporary housing for children in a program for minors who arrive in the U.S. without a parent or adult family member. The agency initially said the facility would be ready by April.

“After doing a thorough assessment prior to the start of any construction at Denver Federal Center … (the U.S. Health and Human Services Department) has decided that the price tag and timeline associated with the renovations necessary do not meet our need to have a facility ready for use this spring,” department spokeswoman Andrea Helling said in an e-mailed statement on Friday.

Helling also said the federal government appreciated the “outpouring of support” from Lakewood residents and elected officials.

Local officials who had questioned the plan’s timeline said they were pleased with the decision.

Lakewood Mayor Adam Paul said the news came as a relief.

“Because of the short timeframe for opening the center, the lack of information regarding the community impacts, and concern regarding the conditions for these kids, I was concerned about it from the moment it was announced,” Paul said in a news release. “The communication with the federal government has been challenging. I hope a better process can be established in the future, and I wish the best for these children.”

County Commissioners Libby Szabo and Don Rosier both welcomed the federal government’s decision to abandon the plan.

“I think we didn’t have enough answers …,” Szabo said. “They were very vague with their answers (about the facility), and I’m not sure if they were trying to be vague or if they just didn’t know the answers. And both things are unacceptable.”

Rosier said that while he is relieved by the decision, he was surprised because federal staffers had never given local officials any reason to believe the plan was not a certainty.

“They represented that this was a done deal …,” Rosier said. “At no time were we told … that they were still in the process of working out to see if it fit financially.”

Colorado Congressman Ed Perlmutter, the elected official who worked most closely with the Administration of Children and Families on the project, said in a news release that when he visited the site, it “quickly became evident” that setting up the facility would be an enormous task.

“While I wish HHS had conducted a thorough assessment before making any public announcements, I’m glad to see they have done appropriate due diligence prior to starting construction,” Perlmutter said in the release.

The Lakewood facility was chosen late in 2015 to serve as an overflow location when other shelters around the U.S. — which are mostly near the Southern border, including Texas and California — are full.

Plans for other overflow facilities are moving forward. Helling said a temporary shelter at Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo, N.M., has already opened, and another at a vacant Job Corps building in Homestead, Fla., will open at the end of the month.

The unaccompanied minor program was expanded after an unforeseen increase in 2014 in the number of children referred — a 133 percent spike over the previous year. The number returned to lower levels in 2015.

The vast majority of unaccompanied children are from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. The Associated Press in January published an investigation saying that some children in the program were exposed to dangerous conditions after being released to sponsors who weren’t submitted to rigorous vetting.

Contact Gabrielle Porter at Gabrielle@evergreenco.com or at 303-350-1042.