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Trump admin weighing plan to house migrant children at Fort Benning military base

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By Courtney Kube and Julia Ainsley  with NBC News Politics
Image: A bridge over I-185 marks the entrance to the U.S. Army's Fort Benni
A bridge over I-185 marks the entrance to the U.S. Army's Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia on Aug. 21, 2015.   -   Copyright  John Bazemore AP

The Trump administration is considering a plan to house migrant children at Fort Benning, a busy military base in Georgia, a Department of Defense spokesman told NBC News.

Health and Human Services, the agency responsible for sheltering immigrant children who cross the border without their parents, is currently operating near capacity, resulting in a backlog of children staying in overcrowded border stations.

No decision has been made yet, but Defense Department spokesman Major Chris Mitchell told NBC News that HHS would soon be touring Fort Benning with defense officials.

"Health and Human Services will conduct a site assessment of DoD property for potential future use by HHS as temporary emergency influx shelter for unaccompanied alien children (UAC) at Fort Benning, Georgia," said Mitchell.

"DoD officials will join the HHS staff as they tour the property available for potential future use. HHS will make the determination if the site will be used for UAC operations. This effort will have no impact on DoD's ability to conduct its primary missions nor on military readiness," he said.

Two sources familiar with a recent meeting on the proposal to shelter children at Fort Benning said the children would be housed away from the rest of the population but still on base.

Fort Benning is a bustling military base that is home to the 75th Ranger Regiment and where thousands of young men and women go through basic training.

Since the closure of the tent facility for migrant children in Tornillo, Texas in January, HHS has been under pressure to find alternative bed space to shelter the rising number of children crossing the border. With few contractors willing to take on the task, state facilities and military land are becoming more likely options, according to a former HHS official.

Under U.S. law, military personnel are prohibited from interacting directly with immigrants. However, the Trump administration has deployed troops to provide security and to fortify barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Immigration advocates have raised alarms about the Trump administration's use of the military and military resources to reduce the number of undocumented immigrants crossing the border.

However, Department of Homeland Security officials have warned that more children could die in Border Patrol custody if HHS does not expand its capacity to take in children. In HHS care, children are given a bed, schooling, adequate medical attention and a case worker to check in on their well-being until they are sent to live with a relative or sponsor.

Since December, three children have died in Border Patrol custody, following a decade of no such deaths.