Since October, about 57,000 unaccompanied children have crossed the border into the United States and been caught. That’s about triple the rate from previous years and it has put a tremendous strain on our immigration system, leading to overcrowding in existing facilities.
Recently, Governor Patrick proposed that we house some of these kids in Massachusetts until they can be placed with families. His plan has sparked a good deal of controversy and raised a host of questions. How many kids exactly? How long will they stay? How much will it cost? And how will it affect the state’s immigrant population?
If you’ve found yourself asking these questions, here is what you need to know about the governor’s plan.
How many kids are we talking about?
Governor Patrick has offered to house up to 1,000 young asylum seekers in the state. That may sound like a lot of kids, but the actual effect on our immigrant population would be vanishingly small.
Massachusetts actually has a lot of immigrants. More than 1 of every 7 people in the state was born in a foreign country, for a total of 1 million foreign-born residents. Some of them are students at our universities, some are former students with expired visas, others crossed the border not for school but to build new lives.
Between 2000 and 2012, our foreign-born population grew by over 225,000, which means we added more than 1,000 new foreign-born residents every month. If you focus more narrowly on unauthorized immigrants, you still find that on average, about 1,000 unauthorized immigrants have come into the state roughly every two months since 1990.
If Governor Patrick’s proposal is taken up, and 1,000 new asylum seekers come into the state, the effect on our immigrant population will be roughly equivalent to the increase we see every month or two.
Where are these kids coming from?
Until last year, virtually all of the unaccompanied children entering the United States came from Mexico. But since 2013, there’s been a surge of immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, and the governor’s plan is chiefly directed at these kids from Central America. Many of them are fleeing violence in their home countries, where gangs have become increasingly powerful and where the murder rates are among the highest in the world.
At the same time, part of what draws them to the United States is the same thing that has drawn immigrants for centuries: the chance for a better life and the prospect of reuniting with family members who’ve already made the journey.
What happens to these kids when they’re caught?
Generally, the first stop for kids from Central America is to be temporarily held in a federal facility. Most of these facilities are located in border states from Texas to California, but because of the recent influx the federal government has been scouting new sites around the country.
The kids stay in these facilities until they can be placed in a stable home somewhere in the United States, ideally with relatives.
Once they are placed with a family, they can go about their lives, which includes going to school and making friends in their new community. Meanwhile, immigration judges will go over their cases and decide whether the kids can stay in the United States. The process can take months, or even years. Currently, the average time for cases in immigration court is 587 days.
What is Governor Patrick proposing?
In order to help alleviate the overcrowding at existing federal facilities, the governor has suggested housing up to 1,000 young asylum-seekers at one of two sites in Massachusetts. Specifically, Patrick is targeting either Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee or Camp Edwards in Barnstable County.
The kids would be kept in these locations until they can be placed with a suitable family (not necessarily in Massachusetts). That process can take up to four months, though the average amount of time is closer to 35 days.
Would the kids be free to move around?
No. They won’t attend Massachusetts schools or eat in Massachusetts restaurants. They’ll be kept on the grounds of the facility where they’re being held.
How much would it cost the state?
Little or nothing. If the federal government decides to use one of these sites, it will be fully responsible for the cost and maintenance of that facility.
Are any other states doing this?
Thus far, Massachusetts is the only state that has expressed a willingness to house these unauthorized kids and identified potential sites.
Several other governors have said they’re open to the prospect of sites in their states, including the governors of Rhode Island and Vermont. Also, there are individual cities, including Los Angeles and Syracuse, N.Y., that are developing proposals.
At the same time, some governors have rejected the idea of housing young asylum-seekers. Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, a Democrat who has critized deportation efforts, has opposed a proposal in his state, saying that he fears a backlash from local communities.
Should Patrick fear a backlash?
Whether he should fear it or not, there does seem to be a backlash. The mayor of Chicopee has come out against the proposal, as have many of the residents in Bourne. House minority leader Bradley H. Jones, who is skeptical of the plan, hosted a “Summit on the Influx of Immigration Detainees” recently at the State House.
Virtually every aspect of this issue has become controversial: not just where to house these kids but even whether to refer to them as asylum-seekers or illegal immigrants. Some of these broader questions don’t have clear answers. But some of the technical questions do.
In particular, if the federal government decides to house kids here in Massachusetts, it looks like the cost to the state will be minimal, kids will remain confined to a secure facility, and at most the foreign-born population of Massachusetts will increase by 0.1 percent.
More immigration coverage: