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Trump administration rethinks new immigrant detention centers in California

The Trump administration is no longer considering using California military bases to house unaccompanied migrant children, officials told Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s office on Wednesday.

Feinstein, the state’s senior senator, had pressed Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan about reported plans to build more detention facilities for migrant children in California during a Senate hearing Tuesday morning. Those reports in June indicated the U.S. Navy was considering building detention centers, to be run by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Health and Human Services Department (HHS), at the Naval Weapons Station in Concord and Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, among other locations.

“My understanding is they’re building four separate places to house children in California, alone, now,” Feinstein told McAleenan at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington, D.C.

“We are unable to confirm that,” McAleenan replied. “We’re not aware of any child centers being built in California.”

On Wednesday, Feinstein’s office said that officials with Customs and Border Protection (CBP), ICE and HHS contacted the senator to confirm that the administration was not moving forward with any plans for new detention facilities in California “at this time.”

According to research from the nonprofit news organization Pro Publica, the federal government had contracts with at least ten different facilities in California to house immigrant children as of June. They included the Yolo County Juvenile Detention Facility and the nonprofit International Christian Adoptions in Citrus Heights, which helps arrange foster homes for unaccompanied and separated children. ICE also operates five detention facilities for adult migrants in the state.

The White House precipitated a detention crisis this spring with a new “zero tolerance” policy that prosecuted migrants caught crossing the border illegally, detaining children separately from their parents. Facing a sustained outcry and legal challenges, President Donald Trump reversed course in June, and began reuniting migrant children separated from their parents at the border. But the New York Times reported in September that the number of detained migrant children remained at an all-time high.

McAleenan testified Tuesday that border patrol agents had separated approximately 81 children from their parents since the White House changed its policy in June. The separations that have occurred, he said, “are for child welfare. We’re talking about examples of a parent wanted for murder, a parent who had a stroke and had to be taken to the emergency room.” He denied that any children had been separated from their parents simply because the families had entered the United States without a visa.

According to CBP data, hundreds of unaccompanied minors and thousands of families continue to be detained at the Southwest border. But the numbers have dropped dramatically since the spring. Hundreds of Central American migrants, part of a caravan of asylum seekers that drew President Trump’s ire this fall, remain stranded in Tijuana, Mexico, just south of California’s border.

Border patrol agents temporarily closed the San Ysidro border crossing and fired tear gas into Mexico in late November after members of that same caravan tried to rush the border fence separating California from Tijuana.

California’s other Democratic senator, Kamala Harris, pointed out at the hearing that the border crossing is “at the heart of over $250 billion of annual gross regional product from San Diego and Imperial Counties and neighboring Baja California” and questioned whether it was necessary to close such a busy port of entry for five hours.

“You can appreciate that there’s a lot of concern in that part of our state from business owners, especially when the President has threatened to ‘permanently close the border,’ that there would be real economic harm to that region,” Harris said. And she pressed McAleenan to meet with San Diego-area elected officials and business leaders to get feedback from them.

“ I will,” he responded. “I’m very concerned about the impact and will definitely continue that dialogue.”

Emily Cadei works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where she covers national politics and writes the Impact2020 newsletter. A native of Sacramento, she has spent more than a decade in D.C. reporting on U.S. elections, Congress and foreign affairs for publications including Newsweek, Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call.