Border crisis creates discomfort for state, local politicians over housing children


Barbara Gonzalez, public information officer for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, shows a dormitory where immigrant families are housed at the Artesia Residential Detention Facility inside the Federal Law Enforcement Center in Artesia, N.M. on July 11. (Rudy Gutierrez/AP)

A governor was moved to tears. A mayor fretted about disease and crime. A city councilman accused the federal government of keeping secrets.

Around the country, in statehouses and mayor’s suites, in city council chambers and local police agencies, the challenge of housing tens of thousands of unaccompanied Central American migrant children is forcing an emotional, uncomfortable and politically treacherous conversation on policymakers at every level. In the weeks and months since large numbers of migrant children began showing up in the Rio Grande Valley, federal officials have turned to states as far north as New England and many places in between in the search for places to keep the children while the government figures out whether to unite them with family members in the United States or deport them.

But, even in places where the administration can usually count on support, it has frequently been met by resistance, suspicion or, in some cases, plain old puzzlement. The Democratic governors of Connecticut and Maryland have objected to specific proposals to locate shelters for the children in their states. And when federal officials turned to Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) for a hand, they weren’t exactly given a set of keys to the 1,000-child capacity facility they were seeking.

“We obviously don’t have anything close to that in Vermont,” Shumlin’s deputy chief of staff, Susan Allen, said in an interview. “We don’t have armories available; we don’t have a military base.”

In Tucson, a left-leaning university city in solidly conservative Arizona, confusion and distrust spread after the appearance of work crews at a sprawling, two-story apartment complex that formerly housed college students. Rumors spread. But no one was talking. Eventually, federal officials confirmed that the complex was being rehabbed to house unaccompanied minors.

GRAPHIC: Dangerous journeys taken by unaccompanied children

Steve Kozachik, a City Council member who has coordinated relief efforts for migrants and who supports housing the children there, fumed. There was already an air of tension after rumor-stoked protests in the small desert town of Oracle, Ariz., where the sheriff had said “whistleblowers” told him that migrant children were to be sent there. Now Kozachik was worried about a backlash in Tucson because of the lack of information given to the public. “Secrecy — that really puts me off,” Kozachik said in an interview. “If they want to assuage the suspicions, they ought to say, ‘Here’s how many we’ve got.’ They need an open dialogue with the community.”

In the small town of Artesia, N.M., Mayor Phillip Burch found himself mediating between federal authorities and residents who thought they had not been told enough about who would be housed at a federal law enforcement training center that was being retrofitted to hold migrants. The townspeople, he said, worried about the introduction of health problems and crime.

Burch said federal officials assured the town that only mothers and their children would be housed there and that the migrants would get “a very thorough going over” medically. New fencing was constructed.

Even so, Burch said, concerns remain about a possible population explosion in the town of 11,000. Artesia’s detention center holds 670, and even though federal officials said immigrants would either be deported or reunited with families elsewhere, Burch frets that the facility would release people into his town, refill and then release them again — over and over.

“Our community cannot support 2,000-3,000 new residents overnight,” he said.

The White House has sought in recent days to quell concerns among state and local leaders.

The federal government pays the basic costs of food and housing. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and other top officials held a conference call with governors Tuesday and, according to a statement from the White House, “addressed several questions about the notification process for governors when unaccompanied minors are placed in their states.” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said last week that officials had been “in regular touch with state and local officials all across the country to enlist their support and their tangible contribution to dealing with the situation.”

At a press conference on Friday, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick (D) recalled times when the U.S. had given shelter to refugees and invoked lessons from his faith to explain why he supports sheltering children who come to the U.S. alone. (YouTube/MassGovernor)

The crisis has been especially fraught for Democratic governors, who are balancing political alliances with President Obama’s administration, logistical complications, and competing interests among immigration opponents and migrant advocates.

“It is a no-win situation for any governor politically,” said former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson (D), who called housing the children the “right thing to do.”

At a National Governors Association meeting this month, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) seemed to make a fine line between compassion and enforcement. He said residents are resistant to seeing “another burden come into their state,” adding that “however we deal with the humanitarian aspects of this, we’ve got to do it in the most cost-effective way possible.”

Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy went further, incensing immigrant advocates in his state when he announced last week that he would reject a request to house up to 2,000 immigrant children.

Within hours, members of the state’s Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission, a panel that advises lawmakers on policy, and several immigration advocacy groups decried the decision and asked the governor to reconsider.

“I had people [on the commission] who were crying because they were so upset,” said Werner Oyanadel, the executive director of the panel.

After meeting with the commission, Malloy’s staff sent a letter to Oyanadel saying that, while the governor’s decision stood, he would help find housing for any of the children with family members in the state.

“The governor’s heart goes out to all of the children affected by this situation,” Malloy’s chief of staff, Mark Ojakian, wrote in a letter Friday to Oyanadel. “We have taken federal requests for assistance extremely seriously and will continue to do so.”

The complexity of managing public perceptions about the crisis was demonstrated this month after Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley angered the White House by saying that Obama’s suggestion that some of the children would be returned to their home countries amounted to sending them “back to a certain death.” The president’s supporters noted that O’Malley had opposed opening a shelter in Carroll County. O’Malley then said he objected to the location because he worried that the children would be unwelcome and that he thought they should first be reunified with their families.

Some of the most emotionally intense remarks by a Democratic governor on the crisis came last week, when Gov. Deval L. Patrick of Massachusetts choked back tears as he talked about how his religious faith was driving him to propose two sites in his state to shelter the children.

Flanked by religious leaders during his remarks, Patrick compared the children fleeing Central America to the victims of the Holocaust.

“My inclination is to remember what happened when a ship full of Jewish children tried to come to the United States in 1939 and the United States turned them away, and many of them went to their deaths in Nazi concentration camps,” Patrick said.

Despite Patrick’s emotional appeal, a new Boston Globe poll found significant opposition to housing the children, with 50 percent supporting the governor’s plan and 43 percent against it.

Some Republican governors have opted for unequivocal opposition.

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant vowed to do all he could to prevent the federal government from housing undocumented immigrants within his state’s borders. In a sternly worded letter to Obama, he blamed the crisis on the “administration’s lax immigration policies” and accused the administration of encouraging children to make dangerous trips across the border and face the “serious threat of violence and abuse at the hands of human traffickers.”

Six Republican governors sent a letter to Obama this week urging deportations. “The failure to return the unaccompanied children will send a message that will encourage a much larger movement towards our southern border,” read the letter, which was signed by the governors of Alabama, Kansas, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Utah and Wisconsin.

They added: “We are concerned that there will be significant numbers who will end up using the public schools, social services and health systems largely funded by the states.”

Lowery and Chokshi reported from Washington. Karen Tumulty in Washington contributed to this report.

Manuel Roig-Franzia is a writer in The Washington Post’s Style section. His long-form articles span a broad range of subjects, including politics, power and the culture of Washington, as well as profiling major political figures and authors.
Wesley Lowery covers Capitol Hill for The Fix and Post Politics.
Niraj Chokshi reports for GovBeat, The Post's state and local policy blog.
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