The federal government is scrambling to find temporary housing for thousands of children streaming across the Mexican border, asking states for help as an increasing number of governors and local officials protest efforts to send the migrants to their communities.
While some officials are welcoming the children, concerns voiced in states and communities near the southwest border and beyond demonstrate the depth of the Obama administration’s challenge in trying to manage the crisis.
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In Escondido, Calif., the planning commission denied a permit to turn a former nursing home into a 96-bed youth shelter after residents protested at a packed public meeting. Federal officials abandoned plans to locate a facility near Richmond, Va., after protests from residents. In Texas, two communities passed resolutions stating they don’t want shelters—before anyone suggested opening them there.
At the National Governors Association meeting in Nashville, Tenn., over the weekend, governors expressed concerns over the cost of housing children in their states. And Nebraska’s governor complained about 200 children who were sent to his state to live with their families, saying federal officials should have told the state who was being sent there.
“Governors and mayors have the right to know when the federal government is transporting a large group of individuals, in this case illegal immigrants, into your state,” Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman, a Republican, said in an interview this weekend. He said he is concerned federal officials won’t answer questions about plans to send the children to public schools and the potential costs to taxpayers.
Federal law requires that children from countries other than Mexico or Canada who cross the border unaccompanied by an adult be transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services, which is responsible for housing them on a temporary basis and then finding sponsors, usually families, where they can live while their deportation cases unfold.
HHS says it is working with local officials as it tries to open new shelters. But an agency spokesman said HHS is legally barred from notifying states when it places children with their families, as was the case in Nebraska, due to privacy concerns.
Still, the policy director for the Republican Governors Association alerted its members about the transfer of children to Nebraska in an email and asked states to report back with similar concerns.
The immigrant children are part of a deluge of tens of thousands of minors fleeing strife in Central America, who are also believed to be motivated by a desire to reunite with family in the states, and a belief that if they make it to the U.S. that they can stay.
HHS handled some 50,000 unaccompanied minors during the first nine months of the fiscal year that began in October, and officials say they are preparing for as many as 90,000 by the autumn. By comparison, before fiscal year 2012, HHS typically served between 7,000 and 8,000 children each year.
In response, President Barack Obama asked Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency funds, including $1.8 billion for HHS, most of it to open and run shelters.
Until recently, HHS had about 100 shelters, capable of housing a total of 6,600 children, a capacity that quickly proved inadequate.
This spring, the agency opened three temporary facilities at military bases in Texas, Oklahoma and California, to house nearly 3,000 more. The agency said it is identifying a “wide range” of potential facilities in hopes of finding a few more.
To expand its options, HHS sent a letter to governors on July 1 seeking assistance identifying additional sites.
The border crisis was a major topic of concern this weekend at the summer meeting of governors, who met privately with HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell about the issue. They expressed concerns about the costs to states that wind up housing children, about their health upon arrival and what the federal government ultimately plans to do with them, said the NGA’s chairwoman, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican.
More broadly, she said she worried that the U.S. may be signaling to other countries that it has an “open border” policy and that they can send children here in perpetuity, assured that America will “feed, house, shelter and take care of” them.
The White House has said that it is working to stem the flow of unauthorized immigrants, both because the U.S. cannot handle the influx and because it wants to discourage children from making the perilous journey. The president has promised that children who don’t qualify for legal status here will be deported home, and to speed deportations, he has proposed changing a 2008 law that mandates a drawn-out court process for Central American children that has made speedy removals difficult.
Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Colorado Democrat, said costs must be a concern. “Our citizens already feel burdened by all kinds of changes. They don’t want to see another burden coming into their state. So, however we deal with the humanitarian aspects of this, we have to do it in the most cost-effective way possible,” he said Sunday.
But other governors were more open to the idea. Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, a Democrat, said his state doesn’t have a suitable facility for a large HHS shelter, but he said he is open to working with faith-based groups to find suitable housing. The U.S., he said, has a responsibility not to send the children back to the violence they fled in Central America.
“If you send these kids back, it’s an incredible problem for them and, depending on what happens to them, something that will always be on our conscience,” he said.
Some local communities have been welcoming as well. Officials in Dallas County, Texas, have offered to find temporary housing for some 2,000 Central American children who recently crossed the border illegally. “Regardless of what views you have on immigration, these are children,” said County Judge Clay Jenkins, a Democrat, who is leading the effort. He said many in the community have supported the effort to open the shelters, and that Dallas has the capacity and the duty to help.
But there has been resistance in many other places—notably in Murrieta, Calif., roughly 65 miles north of San Diego, where protesters blocked buses carrying migrants, mostly women and children from Central America, to a U.S. Border Patrol station.
In Escondido, between Murrieta and San Diego, commissioners worried that the proposed shelter would increase traffic and overburden the neighborhood, said Jay Petrek, the city’s assistant planning director. “They felt this was not the right location.”
League City, Texas, enacted an ordinance last week that prohibits local officials from cooperating with any federal requests to house undocumented immigrants in the community because of “the potential threat of communicable diseases reported to be prevalent among illegal aliens.”
And in the town of Greece, in upstate New York, supervisor William Reilich said constituents raised concerns after learning that the federal government was looking into placing immigrant children in a warehouse in town. The plan was scrapped.
After HHS officials said Thursday that they were considering housing undocumented children at a former Army Reserve facility near Westminster, Md., local officials protested. By Saturday, HHS said it was no longer considering the former Army site, though that may be because it was abandoned years ago and it doesn’t have access to drinking water, according to local officials.
Concerns have also been expressed about a federal facility recently repurposed by the Department of Homeland Security in Artesia, N.M., to detain families with children until their cases can be heard. Artesia Mayor Phil Burch said his community of about 11,000 people will have to spend $225,000 to install a new traffic light near the facility due to the increased traffic. Mr. Burch said DHS officials projected the site will be used to house undocumented immigrants for up to a year—a duration he said locals find implausible.
But loud protests don’t always represent the majority view, said Rep. Dan Kildee (D., Mich.). Residents of Vassar, Mich., crowded a town-hall meeting last week to protest the possibility that several dozen undocumented children could be moved to the community far from the Mexican border. But Mr. Kildee, whose district includes Vassar, said the vast majority of people are ready to accept them. “The loudest voices are often the most negative voices, so that’s what we’ve been seeing,” he said.