It was a Friday in June when Mary Fallin, governor of Oklahoma, got a call from a reporter and first heard the rumor: Hundreds of unaccompanied immigrant children would be sent to Fort Sill, an army post in the southwestern part of the state.
“A reporter called and asked if we’d heard that we were receiving some of the adolescents in Oklahoma. It was just local gossip around the community,” said Fallin. “I found out through the media. No one called to tell me.”
It wasn’t until the following Tuesday, June 17, that Fallin received her first briefing from the federal government on a conference call with other governors. That Wednesday, about 600 minors arrived at Ft. Sill, Fallin said.
In recent months, tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants from Central America, many of them unaccompanied children, have crossed the U.S.–Mexico border. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have directed the minors to government facilities throughout the country, including Ft. Sill. President Obama and members of Congress have yet to outline a resolution to the border crisis.
Fallin, a Republican, spent the weekend at the National Governors Association meeting in Nashville with about two dozen other governors. She has been critical of the president on immigration and attributed the border crisis to his policies.
In an interview on Sunday afternoon, she said the level of contact between her office and the administration has been inadequate. Fallin toured the Ft. Sill facility on June 20, one week after the call from the reporter. Since then, she said, she hasn’t received a government briefing about the immigrant minors.
“Part of the challenge is we don’t know what we’re facing,” Fallin said. “The people of Oklahoma have definite questions about what is going on as these children who are unaccompanied are entering the U.S. What’s the process? How does it affect our states? How do we know who’s bringing them here and where they’re going? To see their legal families? To see their illegal families? What’s their health condition?”
A Fallin aide said that HHS and DHS have hosted a “couple of conference calls” initially, but her office did not receive a briefing on Oklahoma specifically.
“The lack of information that’s coming from the feds is kind of disturbing,” he said.
When Fallin visited the facility along with her secretary of health, she was told they were not allowed to ask the case workers questions, take pictures, or record conversations. “We were not supposed to speak to them,” Fallin said of the caseworkers who man the facility and work with the children living there. “It was Homeland Security that gave us those instructions.”
Fallin said she ignored the directions and spoke with the caseworkers. “I asked them about the process and how the children are doing.” The conditions inside the facility, Fallin said, seemed, “at that point in time, to look fine.” She observed cots with pillows, children playing games, and a “nice cafeteria setup.”
But since that visit in June, the population inside Ft. Sill has doubled, Fallin said.
She said most of the minors at Ft. Sill are between the ages of 12 and 17.
A number of pregnant girls are believed to be in some facilities, as BuzzFeed reported on Saturday. Fallin did not witness any such cases during her visit. “But, they showed me what they wanted me to see,” she said.
Oklahoma officials have heard of several cases of illness inside the facility, including scabies, lice, and one case of chicken pox, said Fallin. “So how do we protect our community, and protect the people who are working on the site?”
Fallin also questioned whether the contacts the children have identified as family members are in fact relatives or “traffickers.”
“One of the things I was told in Oklahoma is that when the children come across the border, they have a phone number and a person’s name in their pocket,” she said after a press conference on Friday. During her tour of Ft. Sill, she said she witnessed a boy place a phone call. A case worker nearby told Fallin that the boy was calling his mother, that the two were trying to reconnect.
“But who is the person that’s on that phone number in that pocket?” Fallin said. “Is it the real relative? Or is it some individual that has paid to have a child come to the United States? Is it a trafficker that has helped this child get here?”
Fallin has still not heard a final word from the administration about how long the minors, many of whom are not far from age 18, will stay at the Ft. Still facility.
“They told us they were going to be there 120 days,” she said. “Now we’re hearing rumors that contracts are going to be extended past 120 days at Ft. Sill.”
On Sunday, the final day of the governors conference in Nashville, Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell talked with the state executives about the border crisis at a “getting to know you” session closed to media.
An HHS spokesman did not respond to a request for comment about communication between the administration and state officials.
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