Governors chafe at quiet dispersion of child border crossers

Governors are learning secondhand that some of the unaccompanied child border crossers are being sent to their states to live during deportation proceedings. Some are not happy at the lack of communication or coordination.

Michael Patrick/Knoxville News Sentinel/AP/File
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, seen here in Knoxville, Tenn., after voting in the state primary election in June, has spoken out against the quiet transfer of undocumented migrant children to his state by federal authorities.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R) is hardly alone in his complaints Friday that the Obama administration is sending child migrants in the country illegally to small towns and cities without notifying state authorities – a scenario that Governor Haslam says “creates confusion and could be very problematic.”

Gov. Chris Christie (R) of New Jersey said US border authorities releasing captured migrant children to relatives who themselves are in the US illegally is “illogical,” and Gov. Phil Bryant (R) of Mississippi charged that an “overreaching federal government” was involved in “covert immigration practices.”

A gaggle of governors and lawmakers, primarily from conservative states, has begun to complain more loudly in the past week about the mostly quiet transferral in the past nine months of some 30,000 unaccompanied alien children (UACs) from the border to all 50 states. Texas, California, and the Washington metro area have received the most children.

The situation is a result of a surge of children and teenagers who are traversing Mexico from Central America and then crossing into the US, largely in Texas. Their numbers have surged in the past year, overwhelming US border authorities. Most children who cross into the US illegally say they expect to be able to stay, and many may be right. By one United Nations estimate, as many as two-thirds of the migrant children – mostly from strife-torn countries like Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador – may have legitimate asylum claims.

Now, a humanitarian crisis that has seemed to many Americans confined to dusty, faraway border lands has begun to cross local city limits as the children and teens are absorbed into communities.

Much of the response to the border crisis has been geared toward protecting vulnerable children, many of whom had a harrowing journey, often accompanied by rough smugglers. At least some fled street gang recruiters and other potentially deadly threats. Many US mayors have publicly welcomed the children, and some of the states that have complained the loudest have seen the smallest influxes of the children, often by just the dozens or a few hundred.

Even Kentucky Gov. Steven Beshear, a Democrat, registered his concerns, though gently: "We need to make sure those kids are safe and cared for until we can get them back home. I think they should go home as soon as can reasonably be done."

Charities and social service groups are helping the small US Office of Refugee Resettlement with housing and placing children. But that process is happening largely without any kind of state supervision or involvement, Haslam complained in his letter to Obama.

"Not only was our state not informed prior to any of the children being brought here, I still have not been contacted and have no information about these individuals or their sponsors other than what was posted on the [Department of Health and Human Services] website and subsequently reported by media," he wrote.

The chafing from Republican governors is part and parcel of resistance by conservatives against what they see as federal overreach by a president who they claim takes liberties on issues including immigration with the executive power of the White House.

A central complaint from Republicans since the border crisis became apparent earlier this summer is that it was partly spawned by misinformation around Obama’s 2012 “deferred action” executive order. That executive action allowed some illegal immigrants who were brought to the country as children to defer deportation for two years.

But migration experts note that a 2008 human trafficking law signed by President George W. Bush also created unintended consequences. It extended more due process protections to children smuggled here from countries other than direct neighbors Mexico and Canada.

For his part, Governor Bryant of Mississippi has threatened to block transports of children.

"To the extent permitted by law, I intend to prohibit the federal government or its agents from housing large numbers of new illegal immigrants in the state of Mississippi," Bryant wrote in a recent letter. "Illegal immigration imposes real and substantial costs on the states, and it is unfair to expect the states to bear the costs of a problem created by the federal government's failure to enforce the law."

The White House is keenly aware of the broader discontent among conservatives, suggesting that anger might continue to grow when President Obama takes further executive action this year to ease deportations, as is expected. Obama strategist Dan Pfeiffer told a Monitor Breakfast Friday that a “very significant” Obama administration policy shift on immigration could kindle impeachment attempts.

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