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Mass. not needed to shelter migrant children

US says crisis at border is easing

Governor Deval Patrick was on the verge of tears at a press conference discussing his plan to shelter migrant children.State House News Service

Massachusetts will not need to open shelters for unaccompanied children who have fled Central America, federal officials said Tuesday, ending an emotional debate that erupted two weeks ago when Governor Deval Patrick proposed bringing 1,000 young migrants to two military bases in the state.

Federal officials said they would not need shelters at Camp Edwards on Cape Cod or Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee because fewer children have been caught while crossing the border illegally over the last month and the government has expanded capacity at existing shelters in other states.

In addition, the number of children released to relatives and other sponsors has increased, as immigration cases have been processed over the last several weeks.


The federal government said it would also suspend operations at three temporary shelters on military bases in Texas, Oklahoma, and California, which were opened in May and June to handle the influx of children crossing the US-Mexico border.

Kenneth J. Wolfe, a spokesman for the US Department of Health and Human Services, cautioned that the situation remains fluid but said the "initial signs of progress along our Southwest border" mean the Obama administration "is no longer seeking facilities for temporary shelters for unaccompanied children at this time."

Patrick, who choked up last month when he proposed opening shelters to alleviate what he called a humanitarian crisis, released a statement saying he was grateful for the show of support that residents had expressed for the young migrants.

"I have been deeply moved by the outpouring of support we have seen from across the Commonwealth, as over 1,600 of our neighbors reached out to express their support for children who are alone and thousands of miles from home," Patrick said. "Once again the people of Massachusetts have displayed great generosity and compassion. It appears that there is not a need for Massachusetts to serve these children at this time, but I am proud of our willingness to do so."


Patrick administration officials said those who called and e-mailed in hopes of helping the children would receive contact information for immigrant aid organizations.

"Should the need for additional temporary shelter space arise in the future, the Patrick administration stands ready to continue conversations with the federal government about how the Commonwealth may assist these children," Jesse Mermell, a Patrick spokeswoman, said in a statement.

Local officials in Chicopee and Bourne, who had voiced strong opposition to Patrick's plan, expressed relief at the federal government's announcement. Although the Patrick administration had said the cost of housing, feeding, and caring for the children would be borne entirely by the federal government, many in those communities worried the children would become a drain on local school and public health resources.

"I'm glad that the government has taken the position that they did because, in my opinion, it was not in the best interests of the town of Bourne to be supporting this effort," said Peter J. Meier, chairman of the Board of Selectmen in Bourne, which includes part of Camp Edwards. "It's been a very emotional, divisive issue, but we have other priorities," such as crafting a town budget that will not burden property owners, Meier said.

Mayor Richard J. Kos of Chicopee said he was also pleased with the decision.

"It's consistent with our position all along, that utilizing Westover Air Reserve base doesn't make sense," Kos said. "It did not have housing available nor did this proposal in any way address security concerns that the base would have."


State Representative Joseph F. Wagner, a Chicopee Democrat, reflected the sentiment of many local officials, who complained that the governor had not consulted them before proposing to use military facilities in their communities.

"Perhaps the lesson for the governor, going forward, is to not put the cart before the horse and to instead have a thoughtful dialogue with potential regions or communities of impact before making major policy pronouncements," he said.

Patricia Montes, executive director of Centro Presente, a Somerville-based immigration advocacy group, said that while the shelters would not be needed, she was glad the governor had offered them in a forceful speech that quoted from the Bible.

"It's very important for us to know the governor was open to giving shelter, and he had a very welcoming statement a few weeks ago," Montes said. "That statement that he made is sending a very positive message."

At the time, Patrick was responding to an urgent request from the federal government, which was scrambling to find shelter for some of the 50,000 unaccompanied minors — most from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras — who had 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.

But in recent weeks, the number of children taken into custody has dropped. In July, the government received 5,303 unaccompanied minors, down from 10,483 in June, according to Wolfe.


“In the near term, the three temporary shelters on military bases [in Texas, Oklahoma, and California] could be reopened for a limited time if the number of children increases significantly,” Wolfe said. “The number of unaccompanied children crossing the border is still too high and thousands of children are still in our custody. We will continue to monitor the situation closely in order to make the best decisions about the resources available to take care of the children.”

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Michael Levenson can be reached at michael.levenson@globe.com.