Federal officials from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) may use Moffett Field as a temporary shelter for a surge of unaccompanied minors traveling into the U.S., a move that immigrant advocacy groups blast as inhumane treatment of families and children.
The agency notified NASA Ames on Wednesday, March 10, that it would assess the facilities at the 1,940-acre federal property for possible use as a so-called "influx" facility, which would be used to house unaccompanied children referred from the Department of Homeland Security. Federal officials confirmed that they toured the property for future use as an immigrant holding center last week.
The search for places to house immigrant children comes amid a two-fold increase in children and families arriving at the border between January and February -- the highest it's been since October 2019. Children crossing by themselves increased by 60%, prompting HHS officials to find a place to house them.
"Additional capacity is critical in order to continue to provide a safe place for children to be released from border patrol stations," HHS representatives said in a statement. The agency must aggressively address both the COVID-19 pandemic and increasing numbers of unaccompanied children who are referred to it from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, they said.
Advocates from the group Services, Immigrant Rights and Education Network (SIREN) swiftly condemned the idea, calling it an attempt to hold immigrants en masse in detention centers that have a sordid history of mistreating children. Dozens gathered outside of NASA Ames on Monday to rally against any use of children's detention centers, at Moffett or elsewhere.
"No matter if we have a Democratic or Republican president, our brothers and sisters, including small children, remain shackled in detention centers," SIREN announced over Facebook. "Children must be reunited with their families and not be locked up in cages."
Priya Murthy, policy and advocacy director for SIREN, said the group is hopeful that the new administration under President Joe Biden will hold its promise in making sure immigrants arriving at the border are treated in a humane manner. But she said the recent action by HHS is "very concerning," and that these influx centers act as custodial, detention-like facilities that often place children who have been separated from their families.
"We are continuing to hear of child separation," Murthy said. "It may look different than it used to before, but at the same time there is still a concern that individuals are connected with their family when they arrive here."
SIREN is not aware of any other facilities being contemplated in the Bay Area outside of the Moffett site, Murthy said, but facilities elsewhere in the country have a poor track record. Claims have been made that children housed in a facility in Homestead, Florida, were sexually abused, she said by way of example.
"With that kind of track record ... we are extremely wary of the fact that federal agencies may have limited understanding of how to take care of vulnerable populations including children," she said.
Officials at NASA Ames said HHS is interested specifically in the 256 acres of Moffett Field that make up the NASA Research Park, which primarily includes former military facilities used to house commercial and academic tenants -- including NASA student interns. HHS is seeking dorm-style buildings that can be repurposed for housing unaccompanied minors, and said in its statement that NASA's missions would not be impacted.
The safety of those facilities have been called into question. Lenny Siegel, executive director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight, sent a letter to NASA officials Wednesday warning that the dorm-style buildings appear to reside within a Superfund site. The area contains the Middlefield-Ellis-Whisman (MEW) toxic plume, where high levels of trichloroethylene (TCE) have been documented. The chemical is a known carcinogen.
Siegel wrote that he believes HHs is interested in NASA Lodge buildings that have been last sampled for toxic concentrations of TCE in July 2011. Not only is the data close to a decade old, but summer weather readings can understate TCE concentrations, he said.
"Since the housing proposal is already a sensitive issue, nationally, we believe it is imperative that NASA conduct new indoor air sampling, as well as mitigation if necessary, to ensure that building occupants will not be exposed to unacceptably high levels of TCE vapors," Siegel wrote.
HHS said it would decide "soon" about the feasibility of the NASA site, and that it will keep local and congressional leaders informed during the assessment. If picked, the shelter would be used avoid having to keep children at border patrol stations for more than 72 hours.