WASHINGTON — — Federal officials are eying a large, vacant office building near Lexington Market on Baltimore's west side as a potential shelter for children caught entering the country illegally, an idea that met with resistance from several Maryland lawmakers on Monday.
The children, most of whom are from Central America, are part of a surge of immigrants that has overwhelmed holding facilities along the Southwest border in recent weeks and forced the Obama administration into a frantic search to find shelter space elsewhere.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski said she opposes the proposal for the former Social Security Administration buildings, and has asked the federal government to consider other buildings in the state.
"I am concerned about the health and safety consequences of putting hundreds and possibly thousands of children in a closed down Social Security Administration office building while we work through language barriers to ascertain their legal status and locate their parents," the Maryland Democrat said in a statement.
In a related development, the Board of Child Care of the United Methodist Church said Monday that it recently won a federal grant to care for some of the children, and is housing more than a dozen at a facility in western Baltimore County.
The Obama administration is considering using the Metro West complex in the 300 block of N. Greene St. to house an as-yet undetermined number of children and families. The 1.1 million-square-foot office complex was vacated by Social Security this year.
Located a few blocks north of the so-called Superblock — a proposed $152 million mixed-use project — the site is considered a potential cornerstone for redeveloping the west side of downtown. Local officials want to know how long the site might be used as a shelter and how many people would be housed there.
"Clearly, that site is incredibly important — given its sheer size — to the continued revitalization of the area," said City Councilman William H. Cole IV, whose district includes the complex. "This would certainly be not, in any way, what I would think would be the highest and best use for this facility."
Cole said he had not heard official word from a federal agency about the potential shelter — only whispers from the downtown community.
Sen. Ben Cardin learned of the proposal during a routine call to the General Services Administration to check on the status of the complex's redevelopment.
Spokeswoman Sue Walitsky said the Maryland Democrat expects to oppose the proposal. "Senator Cardin has some serious reservations if this, indeed, moves forward. He thinks that the welfare of the children has to be the first priority, and he doesn't believe that this location lends itself to that purpose."
Officials at the University of Maryland Medical Center, which is located next to the Metro West complex, did not respond to a request for comment.
If selected, Metro West would be one of several sites across the country used to house the children. Obama administration officials noted that other new shelters — including one at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas and another at Fort Sill in Oklahoma — could accommodate from 575 to 1,200 people.
It's not clear whether the former Social Security buildings in Baltimore are the first instance in which the Obama administration has contemplated using office space as a shelter.
Describing the recent influx of children and single-parent families streaming over the border as an "urgent humanitarian situation," White House officials last week created a new cross-agency team led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate their care.
Fewer people have been caught crossing the U.S.-Mexican border illegally in recent years — agents apprehended about a third of the immigrants in 2013 that they captured in 2005, according to the Congressional Research Service. But gang violence in Central America, along with rumors that the Obama administration is allowing children to stay indefinitely, appears to be driving an increase in unaccompanied minors and single-parent families — particularly through the Rio Grande Valley.
Some 47,000 children traveling without parents have been caught at the border since October, a 92 percent increase over last year.
The federal government does not send immigrants from Central America caught at the border back to Mexico, since that is not their homeland. Instead, they are either detained or allowed to enter the country with instructions to return for a later hearing in immigration court.
Federal law requires U.S. Customs and Border Protection to transfer unaccompanied children to the Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours. The health agency is responsible for finding a place to shelter those minors until their deportation cases begin.
White House officials stressed Monday that the government will seek to deport the children. Policies that defer action on removal for some minors who entered the country illegally, they noted, do not apply to the recent immigrants.
Neither the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which also is involved in the effort to care for the immigrants, nor Customs and Border Protection responded to a request for comment. A spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services said only that the Baltimore site "was not final yet" and referred questions to FEMA.
The Metro West complex was home to 1,600 Social Security employees until the agency moved out. The General Services Administration, which manages federal property, initiated the process of selling the site for development in August.
A GSA spokeswoman said in a statement that the agency is "aggressively reviewing its inventory of federal facilities to identify those that may feasibly provide temporary shelter space for children, should it be needed."
The spokeswoman declined to comment specifically on the Metro West complex.
If approved, Metro West would not be the only facility in Baltimore to house the unaccompanied minors. The Department of Homeland Security issued an emergency grant last month to the Board of Child Care of the United Methodist Church to care for up to 50 of them.
Thomas L. Curcio, the organization's president and CEO, said the group is already caring for nearly two dozen immigrant children between the ages of 12 and 17 in the Woodlawn area. The group provides basic shelter services, clothing, education and recreation, Curcio said.
Curcio said he did not know the exact size of the grant, which runs through September.
"They have proven to be youngsters who want to be here," Curcio said, "and have presented no issues."