Cities to the rescue in child migrant crisis: why some say, 'send them here'

Some cities – Los Angeles, Dallas, Tampa – are getting involved in the response to the child migrant crisis on the border. Their main role so far is to coordinate local nonprofit and faith groups that can provide services.

Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times/AP
Immigrants who have been detained while crossing the border are held inside the McAllen Border Patrol Station in McAllen, Texas, Tuesday. A solution for the growing crisis of tens of thousands of unaccompanied children showing up at the US-Mexico border is looking increasingly elusive with three weeks left before Congress leaves Washington for an annual August recess.

Cities across the US are starting to coordinate the delivery of services to undocumented migrants streaming across America's southern border, especially for the children who are arriving in unprecedented numbers, as federal agencies continue to be overwhelmed by what President Obama has called "a humanitarian crisis."

From Los Angeles to Dallas to Tampa, Fla., city officials are rallying local nonprofit groups and interfaith agencies and are helping the federal government cobble together a roadmap for coping with the legal, health, and security needs of the newly arrived immigrants.

Ultimately, federal courts will resolve the status of the undocumented migrants. But meanwhile, the local level is a logical place to begin to backstop a swamped federal border control system, say immigration and political experts.

“All the research shows that local governments are more responsive to constituencies than further-away kinds of government like state and federal,” says Barbara O’Connor, director emeritus of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento. Facilities at  the city and county levels are more capable of administering housing and medical services, as well as getting people into the legal system, she says. 

The Los Angeles Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs met last week, at the request of the US Department of Health and Human Services, with 50 local groups to discuss what each can do to meet the need. HHS will partner with those groups to identify temporary shelters and provide services, says Vicki Curry, associate director of communications for Mayor Eric Garcetti. The City of Los Angeles itself has not been asked to provide services or resources.

On Tuesday, the mayor explained his reasons for stepping in. "As a father, the most important thing for me is first to reunite these children with their parents before their [legal] status is determined,” he said at a press conference. He noted that HHS asked the city to reach out to groups with experience reunifying families and dealing with refugees and asylum seekers.  

“I think a lot of the parents of these kids probably reside here,” he added. The federal government often contracts with nonprofit groups to provide services, he said, “and Los Angeles has great organizations to help these kids land someplace temporarily safe."

At a Tuesday political forum convened by online news site Politico, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn joined L.A.'s Mr. Garcetti in citing the competitive advantage that immigrants give to their cities. At least one Tampa-area nonprofit group already has applied to double its housing capacity to meet the migrant childrens’ needs.

“We are far more competitive as a community when we look like the world,” Mr. Buckhorn said. “I don’t want to be the mayor of some white-bread Southern city. As a community, when we’re out there competing for business, global business, the fact that our city [was founded by immigrants] makes us a lot more competitive because we look like the world.”

In Dallas, County Judge Clay Jenkins has taken the lead in assembling potential sites to house some 2,000 children expected to arrive by the end of July. A key element in the plan is that no local tax dollars will be spent to house and care for the children.

One key in how the public views all this is how the extra services for migrant kids will be paid for, says Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., noting that nearly 50 percent of Americans want the immigration process sped up for these children, many from Central America. The US public is not particularly in the mood to stretch tax dollars further for undocumented migrants even as public aid for American citizens is being cut, polls show. 

While Americans are by nature compassionate, they are daunted by the escalating costs of the unresolved border issues, says Mr. Pitney. President Obama has requested an emergency $3.7 billion from Congress to address the problem, and the GOP-led House is balking at the price tag.

“We do welcome those huddled masses," says Pitney. But “there is one line of the poem that Emma Lazarus forgot and that is the huddled masses are expensive.”

One coalition of interfaith groups that is responding is the Inland Empire Rapid Response Network, in San Bernardino, Calif. It reached out after residents of Murrieta, Calif., earlier this month turned away three buses carrying illegal immigrants destined for processing and temporary housing.

“To us, it's a no-brainer that churches should come to the aid of the stranger, the migrant. It’s a core teaching of the Christian faith," says John Andrews, spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Bernardino, which has been raising funds, collecting food and clothing, and seeking sites where some migrants can stay while they await deportation hearings after initial processing.

These are just a few examples of “how metropolitan regions throughout the United States have become the ideal testing ground for immigrant integration, and ultimately, the possibility of immigration reform,” says political scientist Catherine Wilson at Villanova University, in an e-mail. 

Staff writer Daniel B. Wood contributed to this report.

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