Gov. Pat McCrory on Tuesday raised alarms about the increasing number of immigrant children detained at the nation’s southern border who are being relocated to North Carolina, as he called upon leaders in Washington to address the situation immediately.
An estimated 1,200 unaccompanied children, primarily from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, who were detained at the border have been placed with a sponsor or relative in North Carolina since January, according to federal authorities. The total is expected to grow significantly when updated numbers are reported this week.
“This is not a border issue any longer,” McCrory said. “This is an issue for North Carolina.”
The Republican governor said the federal government is not providing his administration enough information about the children now in North Carolina. He raised concerns about their well-being and the safety of the state’s residents.
“I’m worried about these children, as I am about the children in North Carolina,” McCrory said. “There is an impact on the citizens of North Carolina, but we are also worried about the safety and danger to these children not knowing what type of condition they are being placed in in North Carolina.”
Federal authorities hold immigration court in Charlotte, and McCrory said the cases need quicker processing to make sure the children are “sent back home where they started this terrible, terrible journey.”
Groups trying to help
McCrory raised his concerns at a time when groups in Charlotte are not only working to help such children, but are seeking to bring in more, specifically those in detention whose parents cannot be located by the federal government.
The Charlotte-based Latin American Coalition says it only knows of a handful of children from the border who have so far been reunited with parents in Charlotte. But a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools representative recently said that the number of immigrant children enrolling in CMS had doubled in the past four months, and many were from South America.
Among the efforts being proposed in Charlotte is an initiative to host groups of detained children in Charlotte until their families can be located.
City Council member John Autry recently asked city staff to study whether Charlotte can aid those detained immigrant children whose parents can’t be found. He has since learned that the city “has no tools in its toolbox” to help.
“Children far from home without their parents don’t need to be in a detention center,” Autry said.
Charlotte attorney Tin Nguyen of Central Law Group is leading the effort to bring a test group of unclaimed children to Charlotte, while the federal government decides their fate. The goal, he says, is to create a temporary safety net with other nonprofits and faith-based groups.
Nguyen said he’s also working on a statewide clearinghouse to process donations to aid the 1,200 children. That effort is backed by the Latin American Coalition, Southeast Asian Coalition and Caldwell Presbyterian Church in Charlotte. Nguyen is a member of the Southeast Asian Coalition.
The Latin American Coalition expects to see many more immigrant children reunited with their families in Charlotte. And the agency is coming up with a plan to connect them with social services, financial aid, medical aid and legal representation.
Coalition officials made headlines last month by offering to help a 9-year-old girl from Honduras, Ligsdenis Ochoa, who is thought to be the first of the children to arrive in Charlotte from the border. She was released from a detention facility in Michigan and is living in Charlotte while she waits for a deportation hearing.
Tinged with election-year politics, McCrory’s remarks followed a letter he signed in late July, joining other Republican governors to press President Barack Obama to address the roughly 60,000 unaccompanied minors being detained at the border.
It’s not the first time the governor has used the immigration issue as a platform to raise his profile. In 2013, McCrory vetoed a Republican-approved bill to provide exemptions from E-Verify for certain agriculture workers because he considered it an immigration “loophole.”
With his latest stance, McCrory put his attention on Washington, asking Obama and Congress to skip their August vacation and return to the nation’s capital to “solve this problem.”
Obama asked Congress on July 8 to approve $3.7 billion to address what he termed a “humanitarian crisis.” House Republicans approved two immigration measures late last week before adjourning, knowing the Senate wouldn’t consider them. The Democratic Senate’s effort to push an immigration measure is being blocked by Republicans.
“I concur with the governor – we have a crisis,” said U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger, a Charlotte Republican, in an interview. “We need Kay Hagan and Harry Reid to go back and do their job.”
His reference to Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan is no coincidence. Hagan is facing a re-election challenge this fall from Republican state House Speaker Thom Tillis, a McCrory ally.
U.S. Rep. David Price, a Chapel Hill Democrat, agreed that Congress should have done more to address the issue before it recessed, calling it a “disgrace” that lawmakers left town without a resolution.
But he blames Republicans for the impasse. “Sure we should have done this before we left town, but I also know where the responsibility lies for the deadlock in the Senate and for the totally unrealistic, unhelpful bill in the House,” he said.
Placing with family
McCrory said the number of unaccompanied immigrant children in North Carolina illegally is double what the numbers showed a year ago, but he could not provide data to support his assertion. Various federal agencies told The (Raleigh) News & Observer the data was not available for previous years.
The majority of the children are fleeing areas of violence and unrest, seeking refugee status at the border.
Federal authorities give the children a health screening and vaccinations and seek to place them with a family member or sponsor in the United States. Others stay in shelters at the border or elsewhere. McCrory said no shelters are operating in North Carolina right now.
As of June 30, 96 percent of all children who weren’t deported at the border were reunited with a sponsor, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The federal government has not released information about how many have been deported.
Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesperson for federal agency, said it tries to place children with a parent or a relative. If that’s not possible, they seek out other potential contacts that the child may have, often a family friend.
“Under the law, we have a legal responsibility to place children in the least restrictive setting that is in the best interest of the child,” said Wolfe, referring to a 2008 law signed by President George W. Bush. A GOP-drawn U.S. House bill would repeal this 2008 law, a change McCrory supports. Katy Canada of the (Raleigh) News & Observer contributed.