As Washington bickers, states deal with border crisis fallout

This June 18, 2014, file photo shows children detainees sleeping in a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility in Brownsville,Texas. AP

Congress is still debating legislation to respond to the influx of unaccompanied Central American children arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. President Obama, meanwhile, is meeting with Central American leaders at the White House Friday in order to discuss the crisis.

In the meantime, tens of thousands of undocumented children who have come to the U.S. in the past year are stuck in limbo, and state leaders are concerned they'll be left taking care of them.

"It is incumbent upon your Administration and Congress to find a solution to this crisis and not just push the issue upon the States," Iowa's Republican Gov. Terry Branstad and Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds wrote in a letter to Mr. Obama on Thursday.

Branstad and Reynolds complained that they learned only this week about more than 100 undocumented children who have been placed in Iowa this year. On top of that, they reminded that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is barred by law, because of privacy concerns, from informing state leaders when it is placing undocumented children with family members.

"The clandestine placement of unaccompanied alien children into communities across the country erodes public trust and puts a strain on already scarce State and Federal resources," the Iowa Republicans wrote. They asked the administration for "individual-level data" about the children placed in Iowa, provided on a "real-time" basis.

Congressional Republicans are considering legislation to strictly limit for how long HHS can keep undocumented children in custody before they must appear before an immigration judge. For now, however, the federal government is obligated to care for undocumented children from most countries until they get their day in court -- which could take years, given the backlog of immigration cases.

While some children are placed with family members, others go to shelters around the country. These shelters have been around for many years, Royce Bernstein Murray of the National Immigrant Justice Center explained on a conference call with reporters Thursday.

"It's not a new phenomenon," Murray said. "It's just newly on people's radar screens."

However, given the high number of children who have crossed the border in just the past year, the administration is trying to work with state leaders to open up more facilities for those children. Some state leaders, like Gov. Deval Patrick, D-Mass., have readily agreed to help, noting that the federal government will foot the bill.

"These are children, coming from incredibly dangerous places," Deval said last week. "And we have to do something sensible and humane while we process them for whatever the next step is."

Still, a number of other Republican governors have sent letters with complaints for the administration about the policies in place.

On Tuesday, senior administration officials including HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson held a conference call with governors to discuss the response to the border crisis. They took questions about the process of placing minors in various states -- but at the same time, the White House said after the call, the officials stressed that Congress needs to get something done. Specifically, Mr. Obama has asked Congress to approve $3.7 billion in funding for the crisis, in part for bolstering the immigration court system.

The conference call, however, did little to ease the concerns of some governors -- some Republican governors were only more aggravated by the situation. Gov. Paul LePage, R-Maine, expressed his outrage on Tuesday after learning on the call that eight undocumented minors have been sent to Maine.

"It is wrong for the federal government to force a higher burden on the people of Maine to pay for those who come to our country illegally, especially when the government secretly places illegal aliens in our state without our knowledge," he said in a statement.

Responding to governors' complaints, a handful of senators this week introduced a bill that would require HHS to give a governor at least 48 hours notice before placing an unaccompanied child within his or her state -- whether the child is going to a shelter or being placed in the care of a relative.

In the House, a Republican bill introduced last week would go one step further, preventing HHS from housing the children in non-federal facilities without first consulting with state and local leaders.

Immigrant advocates, meanwhile, have called the response coming from most political leaders shameful.

The "bipartisan rhetoric in Washington, D.C. [is] rushing to judgment against children," Cecillia Wang, director of ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project, told reporters Thursday. "The overwhelming and unified message from the U.S. government has been to detain and deport these children as quickly as possible to send a message -- that is illegal, and it is immoral as well."

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