Governor Deval Patrick said Wednesday he was trying to find ways for Massachusetts to host immigrant children who recently crossed the US Southwest border illegally, responding to urgent requests from the Obama administration to find places to house them.
Patrick said his immediate challenge was identifying suitable locations, and he emphasized that the federal government would foot costs of housing the children, most of whom have left Central American countries. Estimates on how many youngsters Massachusetts could be asked to shelter, he said, had not yet been determined.
Some cities and states have vehemently objected to requests by federal officials who are trying to relocate the children from facilities on the border.
Federal officials have “asked us to focus on larger-capacity places and ones that are able to be secured,” a senior Patrick administration official said. “They’ve also made pretty clear that, given the intense need to address the humanitarian crisis, they’re willing to consider different ideas.”
Camp Edwards is one of the locations under consideration, the Patrick official said. It housed about 300 evacuees after Hurricane Katrina blasted the Gulf Coast in 2005 and is part of the 22,000-acre Massachusetts Military Reservation on Cape Cod.
“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,” federal Health and Human Services spokesman Kenneth J. Wolfe said in an e-mail.
The surge of children from Central American countries has posed humanitarian and political challenges for President Obama. To deal with the current crisis, Obama has proposed a $3.7 billion supplemental budget. Republicans on Capitol Hill have greeted the request coolly.
Before the recent controversy erupted, Obama had come under fire from immigration advocates for deporting high numbers of illegal immigrants, even as he worked unsuccessfully to pass legislation providing a path to legal citizenship in Congress.
In Massachusetts, local officials have complained that inadequate US border security has strained city and town resources. House minority leader Bradley Jones, a North Reading Republican,said that instead of finding facilities to house migrant children, the state should use the space to alleviate the homelessness problems.
“Candidly, I’m kind of skeptical of the situation,” Jones said in a telephone interview. “I think it raises a bunch more questions than the governor has been willing or able to answer at this point: How many? At what cost? How long?”
Immigrant advocates, lawyers, pediatricians, and others in Massachusetts have been scrambling to respond to the crisis in recent weeks, and Patrick’s announcement is expected to intensify their efforts.
Frank Soults, communications director for the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, an umbrella group of immigrant organizations, said his group and the Chelsea Collaborative, another nonprofit, are trying to coordinate aid for the children, determining whether they need clothing donations, free legal aid, or help with psychological or medical services.
Wednesday was not the first time Patrick has stepped into the immigration policy debate. He has been critical of other states’ crackdowns on illegal immigrants, and in 2007, he criticized the Bush administration after federal agents raided a factory in New Bedford.
Patrick invoked powerful imagery Wednesday to describe how he thought Massachusetts and other states should respond to the border crisis.
“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 when a reporter asked how he viewed the border crisis. “I think we are a bigger-hearted people than that as Americans, and certainly as residents of Massachusetts.”
His evocation of the Holocaust appears to correspond to the story of the St. Louis, a ship that sailed from Germany in the spring of 1939 carrying about 900 Jewish refugees. The ship was forced to return to Europe, where more than a quarter of those on board are known to have died in the Holocaust, according to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“There’s a humanitarian reason to try to find a solution, try to find a way to help,” he said Wednesday. “These are children, coming from incredibly dangerous places. And we have to do something sensible and humane while we process them for whatever the next step is.”
The governor also sidestepped the type of political feud with the White House that has ensnared other governors. Patrick, who is personally close with Obama, on Wednesday pointedly did not criticize the administration’s handling of the border crisis.
Advocates for immigrants called Patrick’s stand a courageous act in a state where immigrants who are living here illegally have struggled to make inroads. Despite numerous attempts and Patrick’s support, immigrant advocates have been unable to persuade lawmakers to pass bills calling for driver’s licenses or in-state tuition for immigrants here without papers.
“This seems to me a humanitarian act by Governor Patrick,” said Antonio Amaya, executive director of La Comunidad, an immigrant aid group in Everett. “It’s very important. And we have to stress that a governor like Deval Patrick should be an example for other states.”
Amaya said he was surprised that Patrick strongly welcomed the children, given the heated controversy the influx has generated nationwide.
In Murrieta, Calif., this month, protesters blocked buses of immigrant children being taken to a processing center. In Arizona, where other children were taken, dueling protests erupted, according to news reports.
In Connecticut, Governor Dannel P. Malloy refused to accept 2,000 children, though he has signed bills limiting police cooperation with immigration officials and granting driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. According to the Associated Press, the state rejected the request because the building that federal officials wanted to house the children in was in deteriorating condition, among other reasons.
Governor Martin O’Malley of Maryland, a Democrat who is a potential 2016 presidential candidate, has also been in a public spat over the issue after he challenged the Obama administration’s handling of the immigrant children.
“Not many politicians are making constructive decisions” on the issue, Amaya said. “The crisis isn’t easy. They’re coming in big numbers across the border. To have the courage to say, yes, Massachusetts is a state where we welcome children, it’s excellent.”
The New York Times reported Thursday that federal officials are searching for places to house the unaccompanied minors and have been forced to scrap some proposed shelter sites in other states because of widespread opposition from residents and local officials.
Immigrant children have been crossing the border by the thousands for many years, but the surge this year has intensified the national debate over illegal immigration.
Federal records show that at least 60,000 unaccompanied minors are expected this fiscal year, compared with 24,668 during the last fiscal year and 13,625 the year before.
Most are coming from the Central American nations of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, which are racked by high crime and drug trafficking. Others are searching for work or joining parents they haven’t seen for years. Still others were brought to the United States by human trafficking rings, federal officials say.