Governor Deval Patrick provided new details Thursday about a federal request to house some of the migrant children crossing the US border, saying he has asked officials to find a location for several hundred Central American children for about four months.
A day after lending his support for a temporary facility, Patrick said the shelter would be secure "without being a jail," administered by the US Department of Health and Human Services, and allow immigration officials to hold processing hearings for the children.
Camp Edwards, part of an expansive military reservation on Cape Cod that took in evacuees from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, is under consideration.
"It bears remembering they're children and they're alone," Patrick said. "I think we are the kind of country, and the kind of Commonwealth, who can step up."
Immigration advocates hailed Patrick's plan to host the children, but Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson joined other critics in denouncing the idea as a drain on public resources. Some cities and states, such as Connecticut, have rejected calls to take in the migrants.
Patrick's willingness to respond to what he called a "humanitarian crisis" was backed by the leading Republican and three Democratic candidates running for governor and other state officials, but met with criticism from some immigration opponents and the ranking Republican in the Massachusetts House, in addition to the Bristol sheriff.
Hodgson suggested it would encourage illegal immigration.
"It's a nonstop flow of people because they know if they get in, they can stay," he said.
Well over 50,000 unaccompanied minors — most from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras — have been taken into custody after illegally crossing 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.
Immigration lawyers are scrambling to provide assistance once the minors are transferred to Massachusetts. Boston's immigration court runs separate dockets for children, in part to help ensure that they can find lawyers to take their cases. Immigrants are not entitled to lawyers at the government's expense, but some legal aid groups represent them for free.
Last year, Boston's immigration court had 643 new juvenile cases, more than four times the number in 2009, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a data research organization at Syracuse University. About a third of the children did not have a lawyer. By June, officials had filed 515 new cases in Boston, and 85 percent did not have lawyers.
Here and nationwide, most court cases involve youths from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
Nearly 100,000 Massachusetts residents are from those countries, according to the US Census Bureau.
The surge of Central American migrants in recent months has already placed a strain on a number of Massachusetts cities and school systems, such as Chelsea, Lynn, and New Bedford, say officials in those cities. So far this year, more than 770 immigrant children have been released from custody to family members or other guardians in Massachusetts.
Patrick said the facility for children would be short-term.
"They would use it to process down the numbers over a period of about four months," he said, according to a transcript provided by his office.
"I can't imagine it's more than a few hundred" children, he added.
Patrick said the facility would need to be appropriate for children, with enough room for them to play and go to school.
A spokesman for the US General Services Administration said that government agencies were evaluating a wide range of facilities "to determine if they may feasibly provide temporary shelter space for children."
According to the US Administration for Children and Families, the average stay in a shelter for unaccompanied minors is less than 35 days and the shelter's effect on the community is minimal.
Hodgson, who has visited the US border with Mexico in recent days, predicted that most children who are sent to Massachusetts will remain here permanently.
"There's a huge backlog of cases, and many will not show up for the hearing," he said. "This isn't a humanitarian crisis; it's a leadership crisis."
House minority leader Bradley H. Jones Jr. said he would convene a meeting at the State House next week to discuss the governor's plans.
"Unfortunately, we are seeing the effects of this national immigration crisis unfold here in the Commonwealth," Jones, a Republican from North Reading, said in a statement. "Now more than ever, it is imperative that we as public officials determine the full ramifications that the lack of responsible federal action will mean for taxpayers, public safety, public health, and any other state resources."
State Representative Ryan C. Fattman, a Webster Republican, said he would introduce a nonbinding resolution in the House urging Patrick to deny requests to take in the children. The resolution cites "serious public safety, public health, and financial concerns."
All three Democratic candidates for governor, and the leading Republican candidate, Charlie Baker, said they agree with Patrick that Massachusetts should host the children.
"All of the states, including Massachusetts, should be part of the effort to provide humanitarian relief for the unaccompanied children that have crossed the border," Baker said, calling the crisis "heartbreaking."
Baker said that federal officials need to provide details about the facility and an "absolute guarantee" that it would be temporary.
Democratic candidate Martha Coakley, the state's attorney general, agreed the state should provide the children shelter.
"These children are fleeing from unsafe and dangerous situations, and until the federal government comes up with a plan to address this issue, we should provide a safe, temporary place for them," she said.
Franklin Soults of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, an umbrella group of immigrant organizations, said he hoped the children would be processed quickly and released into the community.
In many cases, the children have migrated alone, but already have family in the United States.
If the children wind up in Massachusetts, efforts to provide social services and legal aid to immigrants will take on new urgency, Soults said. His group will release a plan to respond to the crisis next week.
A nonprofit, the Chelsea Collaborative, has been helping to reunite relatives and family friends with children detained at the border.
In October, the group saw only a handful of children directed here. But since June, they have helped place 40, said Gladys Vega, who directs the group.
The collaborative also connects the children with food, legal services, and health care and helps them enroll in schools.
"It's about making sure they have these resources," Vega said. "The community has a responsibility to provide these."
Most of the unaccompanied minors arriving in Chelsea come from shelters in Texas, she said. From there, the children contact relatives or family friends in Chelsea, which has a significant Honduran and Salvadorian population.
Jason Panzarino, a Boston immigration lawyer, said he represents dozens of children, including a boy from El Salvador who hid in a church for a week before he could escape gangs trying to recruit him.
Another boy's father was killed in that country and his mother left him alone with his two siblings; the boy was also threatened by gangs.
"It's nice to see some politician stepping up and actually treating these kids with dignity and some kind of compassion for their situation," he said of Patrick's stance. "Especially when the law says they get to go to court. It's not their fault court's going to take three to four years."
John Willshire Carrera and Nancy Kelly, immigration lawyers in Boston, said they will ask federal officials to provide the children with access to lawyers.
"As a bar, we are very ready to take on representation of these children. We are definitely welcoming of these kids and we're going to fight for them," said Willshire Carrera, a lawyer with the Harvard Law School Immigration and Refugee Clinic at Greater Boston Legal Services.
Kelly said many of the children are likely eligible for asylum because they fear persecution back home.
"Children don't leave their families and their homes lightly. It's not children off on a lark," she said.
"This is kids who are being targeted by gangs and they've seen their friends and family members die."