BURLINGTON -- Gov. Peter Shumlin has asked the mayor of Burlington to identify facilities in Vermont that could temporarily house immigrant children from Central America. The work is preliminary, according to the governor's office, and there has been no formal request from the U.S. Health and Human Services Department to provide housing for unaccompanied minors who have crossed the Mexican border into the United States.
The Obama administration is scrambling to find more placements for a sudden influx of child refugees most of whom come from El Salvador, according to news reports. Gang violence in in El Salvador has spurred families to send children to other nations in the region and to the United States. Children are also coming from Guatemala and Honduras.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security estimates that by the end of September 90,000 children will have crossed the Mexico-U.S. border this year.
Many are currently living in Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, a border patrol station in Brownsville, Texas, and similar facilities across the country, as they wait for immigration hearings to determine whether they are eligible for protection under immigration law. Some of the children have been subject to abuse, rape and human trafficking. Many have relatives in the United States. A number of the children speak one of 20 Mayan languages and have difficulty communicating with Spanish-speaking American officials.
Nonprofits like the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program are prepared to provide pro bono legal counsel for children seeking asylum in the United States, but it's not clear whether the federal government will make grants available to the parent organization, the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigration, anytime soon.
President Barack Obama has asked Congress to approve $3.7 billion in emergency funds to address the humanitarian crisis, but as the August recess looms, it appears unlikely to pass. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and other Republicans say the children should be returned to their home countries. They favor a much smaller appropriation.
Governors around the country were informally asked if they would be willing to host the children temporarily until their cases are heard, which according to an official with the Committee for Refugees and Immigration take an average of three weeks to process. But without a guarantee of federal funding, many governors, Republican and Democratic alike, have been noncommittal or have rejected the idea.
Shumlin has agreed to preliminarily explore potential options for hosting children in Vermont.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., last week said he supports Obama's emergency funding package. It's unacceptable, he said in a statement on the floor, for the federal government to allow children, many of whom are 6 to 8 years old, to be pushed through "our complicated legal system, terrified, alone, without a lawyer, only to be summarily deported back into the very danger they fled. I will do everything I can to prevent such a travesty."
Leahy said 50 percent of the children ages 12 to 17 have been forcibly displaced and have claims to international protection because of the violence they have encountered. Those who don't have claims to immigration relief should be returned to their home countries, the senator said.
Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras have weak governments, Leahy said, "that have failed to implement effective social and economic programs or to protect their most vulnerable citizens from record levels of violence."
Leahy called on the House to pass the bipartisan Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act. The proposal would double the number of border patrol agents and authorize the completion of a 700-mile wall on the Mexican border. The bill also features provisions to deter human smuggling.
"The world's eyes are watching to see how we respond," Leahy said in a statement. "We can either make good on the promises enshrined in our laws or we can decide that it's just too complicated and rewrite the law. If we do that, if we choose to send these children back into harm's way, we are turning our back on the very principles on which this nation was founded."