Long Beach will house up to 1,000 migrant children at convention center

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The city of Long Beach will temporarily house up to 1,000 unaccompanied migrant children at the city’s convention center, a federally funded effort that will move forward in the coming weeks.

With an unanimous 9-0 vote, the city council voted Tuesday to approve plans to use the Long Beach Convention Center to provide shelter, food and some recreational activities to children affected by the ongoing humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. The Biden administration is working to ease overcrowding of underage migrants at several Border Patrol facilities by working with local governments like the city of Long Beach.

The convention center will provide housing for 90 to 120 days, potentially getting set up in the next week or two, city officials have said. Federal funding will cover all costs for running the facility.

Mayor Robert Garcia said he hopes the city can provide the same sort of refuge he received when he emigrated to the U.S. as a young child decades ago.

“I came to the U.S. when I was 5 years old, and I’m grateful that I had kind and loving people in this country that welcomed my family,” Garcia said. “We were poor. We didn’t have a lot … and you know, I got a chance to go to college and now lead this great city.”

“And I think these kids just need an opportunity to thrive,” Garcia said, hours before the council voted to move forward with the plans.

The Office of Refugee Settlement within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will operate the facility, working to reunify the children with family members or other guardians living in the U.S. The federal government will lease the convention center until early August.

The Long Beach Convention Center would be the second such facility in California, following the establishment of another space housing young unaccompanied migrants in San Diego.

Over the last day, since the Los Angeles Times reported on the potential housing plans, several calls and emails from residents stating their opposition have come into the City Council office, Councilmember Suzie Price said during Tuesday’s meeting. She said many have been worried the city will have to pick up the costs of running the temporary facility.

But the mayor and other city officials have repeatedly said federal funding will cover all the costs.

Price said moving forward with the plans is a “no-brainer,” joining other members of the council in describing the situation as an opportunity for the city to assist a major humanitarian effort.

“The children that are going to be housed at the convention center face a reality in their home country that is unimaginable to most Americans,” Price said, sharing her own story as the child of immigrants from Iran who were forced to leave one of their children in their home country.

She said she reached out to city officials in San Diego to ask about the facility there, and they assured her the federal government has provided all the funding. The tax burden on city residents or any Americans will not increase since the funding is already there, she said.

“We’re talking about children, children seeking a new life, many of them traveling extraordinary distances with that goal in mind, and with no viable options to go back to their homes,” Price said.

Still, some remain in opposition to the city’s plans.

“One, all we’re doing is encouraging more immigrants to come through,” said Ben Goldberg, chair of Long Beach Area Republicans. “If they see the convention center — Long Beach by the sea. I mean this is the greatest place … I want a ticket from Honduras to Long Beach.”

Meanwhile, some other local residents have agreed with the sentiments expressed by city officials.

“What if that was me? Or what if that was my kids? Or what if I was in that situation?” said Dayshawn Tate, a local resident who supports the city’s plans.

Garcia said Long Beach has a long and proud history of offering refuge to immigrants first entering the country. He referred to the city’s history of having a large Cambodian refugee population as one example, with an influx of Cambodians fleeing persecution in the late 1970s through 1980s.

The city is the largest home to Cambodians outside of Southeast Asia.

Councilwoman Suely Saro, a Cambodian refugee, was one of the city council members who shared their personal history as an immigrant in showing support for the convention center plans.

“As somebody who was born in a refugee camp and have lived in temporary shelter until we resettled in America, we were grateful for the accommodations that were made for us while we recovered and healed from the trauma that we faced during the war and afterwards,” Saro said.

“And many of these children have been traumatized greatly from their experience living in their homeland … as well as emigrating and fleeing,” she said. “And that’s why I really believe we have this duty and responsibility to help them and do the right thing.”

Federal agencies will provide security for the facility, and police will only come to the site to handle emergencies, said Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna.

He said the department does not expect U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to assist in any of those efforts.

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