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The Trump Administration Wants to Detain Migrant Kids at Toxic Waste Sites (Updated)

Tina Vasquez

Thousands of migrant children would be held "on top of and in close proximity to toxic waste sites" if the Trump administration gets its way.

UPDATE, February 12, 10:23 p.m.: A spokesperson at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services told Rewire.News in an email on Tuesday evening that the Department of Defense properties at Fort Bliss and Goodfellow Air Force Base are not actively being considered for temporary housing at this time.

The Trump administration is moving forward with plans to detain as many as 7,500 unaccompanied migrant children “on top of and in close proximity to toxic waste sites,” according to a new report.

In 2018, during the height of President Trump’s family separation crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, part of his broader “zero-tolerance” policy, the administration tasked the Department of Defense with identifying space in Texas to detain migrant kids. The federal government settled on two former military bases: Fort Bliss in El Paso and Goodfellow Air Force Base (GAFB) in San Angelo. “Toxic Cages,” released today by the environmental law organization Earthjustice, is based on documents developed by the Air Force during various investigations under Superfund, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) program established in 1980 to clean up some of the nation’s most contaminated land.

The report reveals Goodfellow Air Force Base is home to “numerous hazardous Superfund sites” that are “riddled with toxic hazards from past military operations, spills, storage of toxic chemicals, unexploded ordnances, and firing ranges.” Most of these sites were never fully investigated or remediated.

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Goodfellow Air Force Base is contaminated with lead, arsenic, and volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, “which contaminate the air and threaten human health through vapor intrusion causing nausea, headaches, and damage to the nervous system, kidney, and liver.”

On a press call Tuesday, Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans said the Trump administration’s plan to use the Goodfellow Air Force Base to detain children is “dangerous, unconscionable, and devoid of concern for migrant children.”

“A public vetting of the plan in compliance with the laws must be done before one child spends one night in these contaminated areas,” Evans said.

Michelle Dobson, a staff scientist at Earthjustice, said very young children, including infants who may be detained at the facility, are the most vulnerable and susceptible to becoming ill because of the arduous journey they’ve taken migrating to the United States. The Trump administration separated hundreds of infants from their parents during the family separation policy. In June, the Associated Press reported that migrant newborns were detained in so-called tender age facilities.

There are four “suspended sites” near the Trump administration’s proposed housing site at Goodfellow Air Force Base, including the proposed location of the residential housing for children, which will be on top of and adjacent to an old GAFB dump known as the Southeast Landfill. From 1970 to 1982, when there were almost no regulations for addressing spilled chemicals, GAFB dumped toxic chemicals, fuels, and other wastes in the landfill. GAFB completed a partial cleanup of the landfill, but it was never properly closed, according to today’s EPA standards. The site is not considered a safe building site. There has been recent dumping along the landfill’s perimeter that was never investigated.

A fuel storage facility on the property is another suspended site. In the 1980s, “extremely high levels of VOCs and other chemicals” were found near the facility, likely the result of “extensive chemical spills” that began in the 1950s. No studies related to long-term groundwater monitoring or indoor air quality were ever conducted.

The Obama administration in 2016 detained children on Fort Bliss in response to an unprecedented number of Central American migrants seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. Evans told Rewire.News that at the time, children were detained in military barracks, structures intended to house people.

“That’s not what we’re looking at in terms of the Trump proposal for Goodfellow,” Evans said. “They will use previously and currently contaminated property to place temporary housing on top of.”

The only hurdle keeping the Trump administration from moving forward with its plan to detain children on the toxic waste site is funding. According to Raul Garcia, former immigration attorney and senior legislative counsel at Earthjustice, the Department of Homeland Security has approved the Department of Defense’s petition for the detention center, but there is a dispute over which agency should cover the cost of building and maintaining the facility. Garcia said this is relevant given Trump has threatened to declare a national emergency at the border in order to divert government funds to build his border wall.

“A national emergency would allow the administration to use funds directed for other reasons to be used for so-called border security, which would include funding for the detention center at Goodfellow. Construction could begin very quickly,” Garcia said.

Members of Congress reportedly struck a deal Monday night to avoid another government shutdown. Central to the deal was the number of detention beds Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has to detain immigrants, according to Bloomberg. The White House has sought to increase the number of beds to 52,000, while Democrats wanted a reduction to 35,520. Bloomberg reported that under the tentative deal reached by congressional negotiators, the average daily cap would be 45,274 beds, though “Trump would retain authority to expand the number of beds by transferring money from other security accounts.”

Garcia said he’s concerned Trump will utilize funding to carry out the plan to build children’s detention centers on toxic waste sites.

“If these plans go forward, approximately 7,500 migrant children will be detained in an area contaminated with lead, arsenic, benzene, PFAS, and myriad other harmful chemicals associated with increased risk of cancer and permanent neurodevelopmental damage,” according to the report. “Essentially, instead of protecting children fleeing violence and extreme poverty, the government wants to detain them on top of a former landfill in a chemically polluted military base.”

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