Long Beach Convention Center could house up to 1,000 migrant children, city says

The Long Beach Convention Center could house up to 1,000 migrant children over the four months as the number of unaccompanied minors has increased at the Mexico border, officials said Monday.

The city on Monday said in a statement said the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has indicated it would like to move ahead with the plan for Long Beach, as convention centers in Dallas and San Diego have already been converted to emergency shelters.

The Long Beach City Council will review the proposal in a closed-session meeting at 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday. The discussion can happen behind closed doors because state open meeting rules allow for real estate negotiations to be discussed privately.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is expected to lease the property from the city, but the terms have yet to be set.

“Long Beach has a proud and long history of welcoming and helping immigrants and refugees,” Mayor Robert Garcia said in a statement. “From our Cambodian community to the work done by our churches and faith organizations, we have led with compassion and kindness. As an immigrant, I know how important it is to support all people, especially children — and I am proud to support our country in this important work.”

The Convention Center parking lot and front entrance at the Terrace Theater are currently serving as mass COVID-19 vaccination sites with hundreds of residents and workers arriving each day for vaccines.

However, the Convention Center itself and the Arena have remained mostly empty with the pandemic putting a stop to large gatherings.

Garcia in an interview Monday said the city and Health and Human Services will ensure there will be no impact to the vaccination areas, which are separate from the indoor Convention Center space and meeting rooms that are currently being considered for the shelter.

If the plan is approved, Long Beach could see children beginning to arrive as early as next week, Garcia said, adding that the model in Long Beach would look much like the model in San Diego.

The city in the coming days will have information on where people can volunteer to help, he said. Long Beach will also partner with various community and faith-based organizations.

Garcia said he’s taken aback by the overwhelming support from the community.

“It aligns with the city as a place that has been very forward thinking and caring and has a history of this type of work,” he said.

The city in its statement said the Convention Center would be the “optimal site to provide housing, food, recreational and other services to these children in need.”

The children would be sheltered for a period of 90 to 120 days until they can be transported to safe housing elsewhere in the U.S.

“The federal government would be responsible for both funding and providing the major services needed to care for the children, with Long Beach playing a supporting role, providing the facility, and making connections to other appropriate non-profit and government services,” officials said.

The number of unaccompanied migrant children at the U.S.-Mexico border has increased significantly since the start of the pandemic, with many fleeing violence or poverty in their home countries.

The federal Health and Human Services Department is responsible for sheltering the children after they are transferred out of U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody.

As of Sunday, more nearly 7,000 children were in U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody, while more than 14,287 were in Health and Human Services shelters, up from 11,551 on Tuesday.

Health and Human Services in a statement Monday said:

“We are working with the city to explore the possibility of Long Beach Convention Center becoming an emergency intake site for unaccompanied children.  We will notify state and local officials well in advance of opening any temporary site.”

Health and Human Services is housing about 2,000 teenage boys at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas and more than a thousand teenage girls at the San Diego Convention Center, who arrived last month.

The site in San Diego this week was nearing capacity, according to news reports.

Several of Long Beach’s nine city council members expressed their support for the plan on Monday.

Councilwoman Cindy Allen, whose 2nd District includes the Convention Center, said the space, which is currently unable to host indoor events, provides a “tremendous opportunity to help without impacting operations or businesses.”

“As our country seeks to best ensure the safety of unaccompanied minors crossing the southern  border  and connect them with their families and guardians, each community must be ready to do our part to help,” she said in a statement. 

Councilman Rex Richardson, who represents the 9th District, said Long Beach has a “moral responsibility” to show compassion in an ongoing humanitarian crisis.

“We are a city that serves as a gateway to the world and has a legacy of welcoming immigrants,” he said, in a statement. “By providing temporary shelter to migrant children, we are living up to our values and leading by example.”

Councilwoman Stacy Mungo of District 5 said the city must consider precautions to keep the children and the community safe, especially with the rise in COVID-19 variants.

“Downtown has numerous vulnerable communities that have already been ravaged by COVID and it is our duty to ensure all measures are in place and federal funding would support all components of the program should we move forward,” she said in a statement. “Tomorrow’s item would allow the City Manager to negotiate terms but by no means is it agreeing to anything and much more information would be required so the communities we represent can weigh in on this important discussion.”

“Children should not be in cages at the border,” 7th District Councilman Roberto Uranga said in a statement. “We compassionately welcome them to Long Beach and we will be there for them with love and care.”

8th District Councilman Al Austin expressed his support in a Tweet.

Feds consider Long Beach Convention Center for emergency migrant shelter

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Kelly Puente is an award-winning general assignment and special projects reporter at the Long Beach Post. She has worked as a journalist in Long Beach since 2006, covering everything from education and crime to courts and breaking news. Kelly previously worked at the Long Beach Press-Telegram and the Orange County Register before joining the Post in 2018. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in public policy and administration at Cal State Long Beach. Reach her at [email protected].
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