Eyes filling with tears as he quoted Scripture on Friday, Governor Deval Patrick strongly defended his plan to provide temporary shelter for up to 1,000 children who have crossed the US-Mexico border illegally and said he had identified two possible locations for them, one in Western Massachusetts and another on Cape Cod.
The facilities are Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee and Camp Edwards in Barnstable County, which housed evacuees from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The bases are being submitted for federal approval, and only one will be selected, said Patrick.
Speaking at a news conference, the governor sought to move the issue beyond the caustic national debate over immigration and used the Bible to frame the problem as a moral one. He seized on the influx of migrant children in a way that other governors have not, showcasing the sort of oratory that helped propel him to office in 2006.
“I believe that we will one day have to answer for our actions — and our inactions,” Patrick said, choking up as he was flanked by religious leaders, including Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Boston.
However, many officials and residents around the bases voiced strong opposition to bringing migrant children from Central America, saying that they had not been consulted and that they believe the children will pose a public health and financial burden.
“The people up here are going to be up in arms over it,” said George Moreau, president of the Chicopee City Council. “It could be a major disaster for this country.”
Others raised logistical concerns. Staff Sergeant Kelly Goonan, public affairs officer at Westover, said the base does not have barracks where the children could stay.
“We do not have the facilities or personnel to house the children, especially during the weekends,” she said. “We have all four branches of the military, minus the Coast Guard, on our base, so the weekends fill up the limited space we do have.”
Peter J. Meier — chairman of the Board of Selectmen in Bourne, which includes part of Camp Edwards — said the board is set to discuss the plan Tuesday. He said 80 percent of the residents in Bourne he has spoken to oppose the idea.
“We need to take care of our own people before we take care of anybody else,” he said.
The governor conceded that there are many unanswered questions about the plan, including how many children might come to the state. He said the federal government may ultimately decide against using either base as a temporary shelter.
Some governors and officials in other states have resisted the federal government’s requests for help. Patrick said he held a press conference Friday to explain his reasoning for offering the shelter.
Patrick reiterated that the shelter will be managed, paid for, and staffed entirely by the federal government. It would be ready for up to 1,000 children ages 3 to 17 and remain open for up to four months, he said. The children, aides said, would receive health screenings and vaccinations before entering the state. They would not attend local schools, but remain on the base while federal officials give them food and schooling and schedule them to appear before federal immigration judges.
In other states, the average stay for children was 35 days, he said. Ultimately, Patrick said, the migrants will either be deported or reunited with relatives in the United States.
The governor said his office would accept donations of toys and books and is looking for volunteers, particularly those who speak Spanish. But he said it is not yet clear how volunteers will be able to help, or if they will be allowed onto the base, since the federal government will oversee the children’s care.
At his press conference, Patrick said he had “searched my own conscience,” and decided to shelter the children in Massachusetts for two reasons: “love of country and lessons of faith.”
He recounted historical examples of Massachusetts taking in young refugees from famine in Ireland, religious persecution in Russia and Ukraine, genocide in Cambodia, an earthquake in Haiti, civil war in Sudan, and from the storm in New Orleans.
“My faith teaches that, if a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall not mistreat him, but rather love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” he said.
“Every major faith tradition on the planet charges its followers to treat others as we ourselves wish to be treated,” he added. “I don’t know what good there is in faith if we can’t, and won’t, turn to it in moments of human need.”
Asked if he was willing to speak out on the issue because he is not running for reelection, Patrick, said, “This isn’t political.”
Several hours after his speech, his political action committee sent out an e-mail promoting the remarks and included a link to a video of his news conference.
The federal government is scrambling to find shelter for some of the 50,000 unaccompanied minors — most from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras — who have illegally crossed the border since last fall. The federal government expects to receive at least 60,000 such children this year, compared with fewer than 14,000 in 2012.
Under a 2008 law designed to protect children from sex traffickers, children from these countries cannot be deported without receiving a court hearing, a process that can take years.
Without enough housing for the children near the US-
Mexico border, the Obama administration has asked states to help shelter them.
The governor, in turn, said he has asked community and religious groups to assist. O’Malley said the Archdiocese of Boston, though already struggling to help the needy, will do what it can.
“I ask my faith community and the wider public to understand compassionately the extreme circumstances these children are facing,” the cardinal said. “As a country and a church, we are capable of providing crucial assistance.”
Yusufi Vali, executive director of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, said the state is facing “a basic choice to be compassionate and hospitable to these immigrant children or to be callous and simply turn them away.”
But Representative Bradley H. Jones Jr., the House Republican leader, said that “while I appreciate the desire to be sympathetic and helpful,” the state already faces enough of a challenge trying to care for its own homeless children and those under the care of the troubled Department of Children and Families.
In Chicopee, Mayor Richard J. Kos also spoke out against Patrick’s proposal.
“Westover should not be an option because it’s not an option,” he said. “It’s an operational airfield without the logistics to house children and maintain its security without impeding its operations.”
A Patrick aide said Westover has land that could be used for temporary shelters set up by the federal government. Camp Edwards already has barracks available.
Representative Joseph F. Wagner, a Chicopee Democrat, said the governor was rushing through the operation without consulting local communities.
“The fact of the matter is this proposal would come at a cost to Chicopee residents and taxpayers,” he said. “It would place a new and additional burden on our city at a time when people are already stretched too thin.”
In Bourne, Julia Ross-Golen, who works in a gardening store close to Camp Edwards, said the children should be sent back to their countries.
“We will do anything for illegals, and we won’t do anything for Americans,” she said. “I don’t have sympathy for people breaking the law.”
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