Amidst Hateful Protests at the Border, Some Leaders Are Rallying to Help Children Arriving from Central America
The Houston suburb of League City is adjacent to Nasa's Johnson Space Centre, but the city council did not have space exploration in mind last week when it passed a resolution about “aliens”.
Migrant children are officially unwelcome in League City, where the resolution directed local authorities to “refuse requests or directives by federal agencies to permit or establish any facility for the purposes of processing, housing, or detaining any illegal aliens, designated as ‘refugee’ or otherwise”.
There have not been any such requests. Still, with more than 57,000 unaccompanied children crossing the border with Mexico since last October and the government seeking to house many of them in new temporary shelters across the country, League City council members launched a pre-emptive strike, citing concerns that a torrent of undocumented immigrants will overwhelm local schools, healthcare facilities and law enforcement, prompt financial ruin, spread disease and even help terrorists.
However dubious, such fears are being mirrored elsewhere in the country, where the recent influx of migrants – many fleeing violence in Central America – has created flashpoints and underlined how a humanitarian and logistical challenge has become politicised locally as well as nationally.
Murrieta, southern California, has been a focal point for pro- and anti-immigration activism since 1 July, when protesters blocked buses of women and children from entering a Border Patrol processing centre, forcing them to go elsewhere.
Protesters from both sides gathered in Oracle, Arizona, on Tuesday, in anticipation that 40 to 60 children would arrive to be housed in a nearby ranch, with a local sheriff helping to fuel outrage: “We have enough problems with the drug cartels and illegals in Arizona and don't need additional illegals sent to us by President Obama,” Paul Babeu said on his Facebook page.
Iowa’s governor, Terry Branstad, said on Monday that he did not want any undocumented minors to be sent to his state. "I do want empathy for these kids, but I do not want to send the signal to send these children to America illegally,” he said in a news conference.
Local opposition last month to a plan to house children on a disused college campus in the small town of Lawrenceville, Virginia, was so fierce that federal officials scrapped the idea at the last minute.
The mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, however, said this week that he is willing to work with federal authorities to house children in the city on a temporary basis. And Stephanie Miner, the mayor of Syracuse, New York, wrote a letter to President Obama this week requesting that plans for a shelter there that could house up to 200 children be expedited.
“These are children, and it's hard to watch this and think that saying anything other than, 'Let's give them shelter in this humanitarian storm,' it seems to us to be the appropriate way to respond to it,” she told the Associated Press.
But activist groups opposing what they term an “invasion” are organising a National Day of Protesting against Immigration Reform, Amnesty and Border Surge for Friday and Saturday, with over 300 protests planned nationwide at locations including streets, state capitols and Mexican consulates.
One protest is scheduled for the Dallas office of Clay Jenkins: 411 Elm Street, a building better known as the former Texas School Book Depository. Jenkins, a Dallas County judge, is being targeted because he is leading a plan to house about 2,000 unaccompanied children in three currently empty Dallas-area buildings: a hospital warehouse, a middle school and an elementary school. The proposal is close to fruition.
“How exactly we do it and where exactly we do it is what we’re working on now, so we have site assessment teams on the ground in Dallas doing all the necessary scoping and other work necessary on each site,” he told the Guardian.
Jenkins said he hoped to have children staying in the facilities by the end of the month. “The initial contract will be for 120 days and my best guess based on the very fluid situation in this crisis is that it’ll probably be a 200, 240-day engagement,” he said.
Jenkins visited a holding facility in the Texas border city of McAllen, in the Rio Grande Valley, the centre of the influx. He said he saw “children in what amounts to drunk tanks in the county jail, in cinder-block rooms with no bedding, with a concrete bench on one side of the room and a stainless steel toilet on the other, twice as many children, up to four times as many children as are recommended for the site.
“I saw children that were dirty and were scared, children with their faces pressed against the glass to look at their siblings who they’d been separated from because of age and sex, children that were in conditions that are just not conducive for childcare. Every day they stay there is a terrible day for those children … it’s by no fault of our Border agents, who are doing a heroic job, but this is a humanitarian crisis.”
Jenkins said that he had spoken with other politicians, including some elsewhere in Texas, Wisconsin and Utah, who had expressed an interest in setting up shelters.
Once apprehended by Border Patrol, unaccompanied minors from countries other than Mexico and Canada are supposed to be handed over within 72 hours to the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which places them in one of a nationwide network of shelters while officials try to place them with a US-based family member or other sponsor.
The ORR operates about a hundred permanent short-term shelters for these children, with costs covered by the agency’s budget – originally $868m this year, before the Obama administration requested $3.7bn (£2.2bn) in emergency funding from Congress to take a range of measures to ameliorate the crisis.
The proposed Dallas shelters would be unusually large. HHS has opened three temporary shelters at military bases in Texas, California and Oklahoma with a combined capacity of about 3,000 beds.
Shelters are often run on a day-to-day basis by non-profit groups such as faith-based charities. The ORR says that all children are given comprehensive health screenings, remain on facility grounds and do not integrate into local communities, and the average stay is less than 35 days.
Jenkins said that there is also a need for thousands of foster families to look after the 10% to 15% of children who are not placed with a sponsor. While lawmakers in Washington continue to discuss how to deal with the situation, with no agreements on funding and tactics seeming imminent, he said he wants public figures to “incite our people to compassion”.
“We’ve got to empower people to let their faith in humankind prevail over their fear of the unknown,” he said.