LYNN — The passion and polarization of the immigration debate was on full display here Tuesday afternoon, when more than a hundred protesters stood on the steps of City Hall to denounce Mayor Judith Flanagan Kennedy for saying that an influx of child immigrants from Central America is draining the city’s resources.
Holding signs and chanting at times, the demonstrators stood behind a round of speakers from local community groups who criticized the mayor and the superintendent of the Lynn public schools, Catherine Latham, for comments they made to Fox 25 about the costs incurred by immigrant children.
“The mayor’s comments provoke tension,” said Jose Palmas, one of the organizers of the protest. “These kids are scapegoats for the city’s problems.”
Kennedy told the Fox affiliate last week that because of the surge of immigrants, “it’s gotten to the point where the school system is overwhelmed, our Health Department is overwhelmed, the city’s budget is being sustainably altered in order to accommodate all of these admissions in the School Department.”
Neither Kennedy nor Latham could be reached for comment Tuesday.
Debate, occasionally heated, broke out on the sidewalk between immigrant advocates and about a dozen people who said they supported the mayor and opposed illegal immigration. They held up their own signs, with such sayings as “Illegal is illegal,” and “Support the mayor, don’t judge Judy.”
“It’s a strain on the budget,” Michael Birmingham, who lives in Lynn, said. “The focus should be on the homeless here.”
Angelo Silva, who said he happened to walk by and see the demonstration, did not agree with Birmingham and another counterprotester, arguing that the children would face death if they were forced to return to Central America.
“These are kids,” Silva said. “If they’re steered when they come here, they can contribute.”
Last school year in the Lynn public schools there were 248 new students from Guatemala, 126 of them illegal immigrants, Kennedy told Fox. The recent surge began in 2012, but there has been a marked increase recently, she said.
The crisis at the US-Mexican border has taken on added significance in Massachusetts, where Governor Deval Patrick recently offered the federal government two locations to provide temporary shelter for up to 1,000 children caught as they entered the United States illegally. Since October, more than 50,000 unaccompanied minors — most from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras — have been taken into custody after illegally crossing the border. The federal government expects to receive at least 60,000 such children this year, compared with fewer than 14,000 two years ago.
Under a 2008 law designed to protect children from sex traffickers, children from countries outside neighboring Mexico and Canada cannot be deported without receiving a court hearing, a process that can take years.
Eleven years ago, Janixia Macario was an unaccompanied child crossing the border to escape violence in Honduras. She was 13 when she and her 6-year-old sister undertook the perilous journey through Mexico to reunite with their parents in Chelsea.
On Tuesday, Macario, 24, stood with her three daughters in solidarity, she said, for the children coming to the United States on their own.
“I identify with them,” she said. “But now the violence has increased in these countries.”
The manifestation at times took a religious tone. The Rev. Jane Gould of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church exhorted the audience to welcome the new arrivals by citing scripture, which Governor Patrick also did in speeches defending his plan.
“God tells us to show hospitality for immigrants, to look out for and care for these children,” she said, eliciting cheers and applause from the demonstrators.
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Oliver Ortega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ByOliverOrtega.