Welcome mat or closed door? Cities split on handling migrant kids

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A packed city council chamber erupts in cheers as the local government of Bell, California voted unanimously in support of a proposal to convert a Salvation Army shelter into a home for undocumented minors. Meanwhile, just a 90-minute drive to the south, hordes of protesters set up highway roadblocks outside Murrieta to prevent buses carrying undocumented immigrants from entering their town.

The diametrically opposite reactions from the two nearby cities underscores America’s divergent public opinion regarding undocumented immigrants from Latin America. Across the United States, communities are polarized over the question about what to do with the 57,000-plus undocumented minors —many younger than 12 —who have entered the country since last October. As the Obama administration pursues options for temporary shelters to accommodate the incoming minors, questions of responsibility, liability, and blame have left towns, counties, and states divided.

In California, a state where more than 3,000 undocumented minors were released into familial or foster care in the first six months of 2014, according to the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), public opinion is predictably at odds over decisions made by local governments.


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Although Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has pledged help, an increasing number of cities are opposed to receiving undocumented immigrants. The city of Escondido, 30 miles north of San Diego, is among them. In a unanimous vote, the city’s planning commission rejected a proposal to convert a vacant retirement home into a shelter. In an interview with Fusion, Escondido Mayor Sam Abed said the community is “overwhelmed by the immigration issue.”

“We are not willing to spend our own resources on newcomers when there are needs here,” he said.

Bell, a city that gained notoriety for an embezzlement scandal three years ago, is “a poor city” that is “very working-class,” according to Councilwoman Ana Maria Quintana. Still, she supported the proposal of turning the Salvation Army shelter into a home for child migrants because it won’t cost the city any money. And it’s an easy one to sign-off on, because it won’t cost the city any money. Mayor Nestor Enrique Valencia, a Mexican immigrant himself, called the decision a “no-brainer” and said the vitriolic reactions from other communities is difficult to understand.

“That’s not the country I know,” Valencia told Fusion in an interview. “I don’t want to show these kids ‘America the Ugly.’ I want to show them ‘America the Compassionate,’ ‘America the Beautiful’.”


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The search for shelter space has become more urgent across the country. The federal government said it will stop using military bases to provide temporary housing for children caught crossing the border. Instead, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is turning to local governments to provide shelter space — a solution that officials hope will be more cost effective.

Dozens of cities, states, and local governments have already offered to provide shelter space or foster homes. But the federal government is keeping those locations a secret to protect the “safety and security of minors and the staff at the facilities,” HHS’s Administration for Children and Families told Fusion in a statement.

“Organizations, communities and states have offered to help with this humanitarian response,” a spokesman for ACF said. “While only a few facilities will ultimately be selected, a wide range of facilities are being identified and evaluated to determine if they may feasibly provide temporary shelter space for children. Facilities will be announced when they are identified as viable options.”

Where have migrant kids have been placed?

State-by-state data of unaccompanied children released to sponsors, according to the U.S. Administration for Children and Families. Click on each tab to see the number of kids who have been placed in each state. Through July 31, 37,477 children have been placed with sponsors nationwide.

In New York City, some 2,000 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, officials created a task force to assist advocacy organizations working with undocumented minors. City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (D) voiced strong support for the Big Apple’s position and called on the city to do more to provide temporary shelter for unaccompanied children.

She lamented that some people are vilifying the children and told the New York Observer that the city can play a strong support role for children who “faced a horrific situation at home” and “a horrific situation right now” in the United States.

Syracuse is divided over Mayor Stephanie Miner’s aggressive efforts to persuade the government to shelter kids at a former college campus. The site at the former Maria Regina College is the only one in New York State to pass an initial assessment by the feds. “As a city with a rich immigrant tradition we feel strongly these children should be welcomed and protected,” Miner wrote in a letter to Obama.

But at a town hall forum to discuss her actions, the mayor was met with a divided public — shouts of outrage and statements of support.

“Many people who express opposition to my position are reacting to misinformation, not the facts of the matter,” Miner said in a statement to Fusion. “They are not gang members; they are escaping gangs in Central America. They do not bring diseases.”

The city is waiting to receive the results of a second round of assessments by HHS on the site.

In Mississippi, the dispute over undocumented immigrants has escalated into a war of words. Gov. Phil Bryant (R) wrote a letter to Obama saying that he “intends to prohibit the federal government or its agents from housing large numbers of new illegal immigrants in the State of Mississippi.”

In response, Rep. Bennie Johnson (D-Miss.) wrote to the president to remind him that “Governor Bryant does not speak for all Mississippians.” Johnson said Mississippi “must do all [it] can to give assistance.”

A similar confrontation took place in Georgia, pitting Republican Gov. Nathan Deal against Atlanta’s Democratic Mayor Kasim Reed.

Across Texas, the state receiving the largest number of placements of undocumented youth, public opinion is varied. Several counties have passed resolutions banning the housing of immigrant youth.

League City is one of communities with a closed-door policy, arguing that “without a secure border, Texas cities and communities cannot protect the health and safety of their citizens.” The city’s resolution states that “all agencies of the City of League City are instructed 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.”

But according to Mary Giovagnoli, director of the Immigrant Policy Center at the American Immigration Council, these resolutions are “really just for show.” It is unlikely that the city would have the authority to override federal decisions.

In Dallas County, officials are working with the federal government to accommodate up to 2,000 migrant kids, Judge Clay Jenkins said in June.

Varying reactions from cities and states over how to handle the influx of kids mirrors public attitudes nationwide. A slim majority wants to speed up the legal process for dealing with Central American children, even if it means some who have asylum claims get deported, according to a July Pew Research Center survey. Almost four in 10 want to keep the current process, which means that kids will stay in the U.S. while they await an immigration hearing.

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