The city of Madison is trying to identify a large facility to help the federal government provide temporary housing for unaccompanied children entering the United States at the border with Mexico.

But so far, the city hasn’t been able to find a building or buildings that meet the federal criteria, which includes 90,000 square feet of leasable space — about the size of a large supermarket — that’s unoccupied, immediately available, and that can be fenced or have adequate security.

“So far, we’ve not been successful,” Mayor Paul Soglin said. “We don’t have an inventory of appropriate buildings vacant. We’re still looking, but I’m getting more pessimistic as the days go by.”

The city would have no responsibilities for the facility and there appear to be no significant negatives, other than “being criticized by xenophobes,” Soglin said.

Detention and processing of children and adults from Central America crossing the border in the Rio Grande Valley has been continuing at high rates. Until recent years, the federal government had served about 7,500 unaccompanied alien children per year, but the total for this year is projected at 60,000, with most from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

“This is an unprecedented event that requires unique approaches to temporarily house children until they can be discharged to a sponsor while awaiting judicial proceedings,” U.S. Department of Heath and Human Services regional director Kathleen Falk, the former Dane County executive, wrote to Soglin last week.

The facility would be used to house perhaps 150 to 250 children for 30 to 60 days during hearings that will determine whether they are placed with known family and friends, deported to family in their home country or another solution is found. The federal government would pay all costs for acquiring, renovating and running the building that is selected.

“Everything is self-contained — health, counseling, recreation, education,” Soglin said, adding that he believes the entire effort would be done in a few months.

The responsibility of watching, feeding and caring for the children could create jobs for qualified providers, the mayor said.

The facility search was sparked by an inquiry from the federal government to cities with a population of 200,000 or more and an airport — Madison and Milwaukee qualify in Wisconsin — and a meeting was quickly scheduled with Centro Hispano of Dane County, the Latino Chamber of Commerce and others on July 7, Soglin said.

“We’re all really willing to see how we can help,” Centro Hispano executive director Karen Menendez Coller said.

“We were all on the same page,” Soglin said. “Let’s have the city go ahead and make an effort to cooperate here.”

The federal government has about 100 short-term shelters across the country but is now seeking larger buildings to join three temporary facilities now opened in Texas, California and Oklahoma.

“A wide number of facilities are being identified and evaluated,” said Kenneth Wolfe of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The few selected will be announced when identified as viable options, he said.

Madison has no public buildings that fit the criteria, which require outside space for services if needed and preferences for climate control, showers and toilets, kitchen and cafeteria space, classroom and recreational space. But there could be a private property that would work, Soglin said.

The building could be a vacated warehouse, big-box store, shopping mall, event venue, hotel or dorms, school campus or health care facility. “There aren’t a lot of these type of buildings sitting around,” city real estate manager Don Marx said. “There are no city facilities available.”

The city is aware of at least three facilities that might meet the criteria that are located in industrial parks in neighboring communities, Marx said.

Dean Mosiman covers Madison city government for the Wisconsin State Journal.

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