Convention center line

Hundreds of cars lined up outside the Long Beach Convention Center for the first day at the mass COVID-19 vaccine site. That use would continue if the center is used as housing for immigrant minors.

The Long Beach Convention Center likely will transform into a temporary migrant shelter in the coming days or weeks, as the United States deals with an ongoing crisis at the southern border, with a surge in unaccompanied minors.

Federal officials have expressed interest in moving forward with using the facility as an emergency shelter site, city officials said Monday, April 5, and the City Council will conduct a special Tuesday meeting to approve the designation.

The United States has faced a recent surge of unaccompanied minors at its southern border, and so the Office of Refuge Resettlement, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has requested assistance from local governments across the country, including Long Beach, to help house those children; the Convention Center would operate as one such temporary site for children who are en route to be unified with family members or sponsors.

A representative for the Health and Human Services Department acknowledged that Long Beach was under consideration to host a facility but did not confirm that the federal government had decided to proceed with a potential contract.

“The Long Beach Convention Center is under active consideration,” a spokesperson for the department’s Administration for Children and Families division said in an email. “When we make the decision to activate an Emergency Influx Site for unaccompanied migrant children we will notify state and local authorities as well as members of Congress.”

The spokesperson declined to answer further questions.

The contract would last for 90-to-120 days and end on Aug. 2 at the latest, Mayor Robert Garcia said, meaning the site could be up and running any day now. It would allow for the housing of up to 1,000 children, though not all of those children would necessarily be at the Convention Center at once.

Long Beach’s Convention Center has been largely dormant during the coronavirus pandemic, but its parking lot has been tapped for COVID-19 testing and vaccinations; the temporary shelter would not impact those operations.

“Long Beach has a proud and long history of welcoming and helping immigrants and refugees,” 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.”

Long Beach became home to the largest concentration of Cambodians outside the country itself after thousands sought refuge in the city from genocide in their homeland in the 1970s and ’80s. But Long Beach isn’t the only city in the area with a history of welcoming immigrants: Little Saigon, in Orange County, sprang up as refugees poured in following the Fall of Saigon in 1975, and Little Armenia, in Los Angeles, first started growing in the early 20th century as Armenians, like Cambodians would more than half a century later, fled genocide.

“As an immigrant,” Garcia said, “I know how important it is to support all people, especially children — and I am proud to support our country in this important work.”

Garcia, who immigrated to the U.S. from Peru at 5 years old, said in a Monday phone interview that he believed the proposal would have the support of the City Council and that the Convention Center is an ideal location for such a facility because of the amount of space and number of rooms it has to allow for safe and healthy living quarters.

He said the facility would be akin to a migrant shelter that opened last month at the San Diego Convention Center to house up to 500 teen girls.

“These are really humane facilities, where there’s a lot of services and learning and opportunity for kids to be safe,” Garcia said, “and get them out of these detention centers that are along the southern border.”

An influx of unaccompanied minor immigrants have stretched facilities at the Mexican border. Besides the San Diego site, the Biden administration has also established multiple temporary facilities in Texas, including at a convention center in Dallas, a coliseum and expo center in San Antonio, a former oil camp in Midland and at Fort Bliss. Additional facilities to shelter the minors are being scouted, including a Crowne Plaza hotel in Dallas, a convention center in Florida, and a church hall in Houston.

Border authorities encountered more than 9,000 children without a parent in February, the highest single month since May 2019, when more than 11,000 unaccompanied minors came to the border.

Unlike their parents in many situations, all unaccompanied minors are allowed to stay in the U.S. That dynamic has prompted many parents to either send kids on the journey to America alone, or get to the border and let them go the rest of the way. Most end up at least temporarily in shelters that are currently way beyond capacity.

Garcia, meanwhile, said officials at Cal State Long Beach, Long Beach City College and the Long Beach Unified School District have been notified, and may offer educational opportunities for the children.

Community members and other organizations, including faith-based groups, will also be able to help with the site’s operations, Garcia said. Volunteer opportunities, he said, will be announced in the days ahead.

The Associated Press and the New York Times contributed to this report. This story is developing and will be updated.

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