How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

As fewer child migrants arrive, Ventura County emergency shelter closes — for now

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Just two months after it opened, an emergency shelter for unaccompanied child migrants on a naval base in Port Hueneme has closed, at least for the time being.

The 600-bed shelter for minors over age 12 closed Aug. 7, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Many of its occupants have already been reunited with relatives. Those left were placed at existing HHS shelters, said Kenneth Wolfe, a department spokesman.

"We were able to take this step because we have proactively expanded capacity to care for children in standard shelters, which are significantly less costly facilities," Wolfe wrote in an email. "At the same time, we have seen a decrease in the number of children crossing the southwest border."

Ana Garcia of the Central American Resource Center in Los Angeles said that she and other service providers recently met with HHS officials, and was told the majority of the kids at the shelter had been placed with family, with relatively few being transferred to other shelters.

The rate of kids arriving at border will determine whether the shelter — and others like it on military bases in Texas and Oklahoma — will remain closed. The temporary sites, which were intended for short-term use, remain an option through January "but only if needed," Wolfe said.

The closing of the emergency shelters follows a sharp decline in the number of minors and families crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, with the number of minors taken into custody by border officials dropping in July to roughly half what it was in May and June.

Some of those who have been working closely with recently-arrived unaccompanied minors — the majority from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — say it's too soon to know if this is a seasonal drop.

"Some people say that it's just a function of the summer, the heat of the desert," said Kristen Jackson of Public Counsel in Los Angeles, which has been representing some child migrants. "But other folks also wonder if there have been stepped up efforts to stop and deport children in countries along the way, so that Mexico and other countries may be enforcing immigration laws against these kids."

There have also been public outreach campaigns by the U.S. and Central American governments put together in hopes of dissuading new departures, including a $1 million U.S. international media effort dubbed the "Dangers Awareness Campaign" that aims to convince would-be migrants to stay put.

Unlike the kind of heavy border traffic that was seen in the 2000s, consisting mostly of economic migrants from Mexico, the recent mass migration from Central America has mostly been in response to escalating violence from gangs and drug cartels.

If the number of child migrants pick back up after the summer, the government has additional shelter plans in the works. A call went out for shelter space in June, to which grant applicants responded earlier this month. Among them is the Los Angeles-area Salvation Army, which has submitted a proposal to open a 136-bed shelter in Bell and a smaller one in the Hollywood area.

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