A city that takes pride in opening its arms to immigrants finds itself in a strange position: possibly rejecting Central American children who face a return to their own violence-torn countries.
Dayton bills itself as an immigrant friendly city, and its Welcome Dayton initiative has earned national publicity and a few copycats. But a controversy has erupted over whether the city should temporarily house groups of unaccompanied immigrant children who have illegally crossed into the United States, pitting the city’s Democratic mayor against a Republican congressman, the chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party and various GOP lawmakers.
Those who oppose providing the temporary housing say the Welcome Dayton program is designed to encourage legal immigrants, not illegal ones. They say taking care of children from Central America, even temporarily, would be a costly burden on taxpayers and encourage more illegals to come.
“As a country we simply cannot say (to) anyone who comes to the border who is fleeing a bad situation (that) we’re going to allow them to come in,” said Centerville Mayor Mark Kingseed. “If you get to that, then we’ve totally lost control of the border.”
Kingseed was one of six local Republican elected officials and U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, who signed a July 25 letter to President Barack Obama saying that the community does not want the children housed here.
Others argue that immigrants bring vibrancy and economic growth to the community and that Americans, including those living in the Dayton region, have a moral obligation to respond to the humanitarian crisis that is overwhelming border state facilities as these children stream into the United States.
“This is an issue about defenseless children,” said Sister Maria Stacy, director of the Hispanic Catholic Ministry of Dayton, a ministry of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati that uses private funds to serve immigrants.
“The Holy Father, Pope Francis, calls us to welcome and protect these children. The violence in these countries calls for a humanitarian response to this crisis, not a closed door.”
Last week Archbishop Dennis M. Schnurr issued a letter calling for people to move past the “messy, political aspects” of the debate and respond as Christians by caring for “the most poor and vulnerable.”
Long-term, said Schnurr, the solution is for the United States to fix its immigration system and commit to a stronger relationship and “robust development efforts” in counties south of our border.
Francisco Mejia, 32, was brought here illegally from Mexico as an infant and obtained his legal documentation during the federal government’s mid-1980s amnesty program. He manages the popular Dayton restaurant, Taqueria Mixteca, owned by his mother, Martha Guzman, who he said immigrated legally and worked in factories until she went into the restaurant business.
Mejia said Turner’s letter sends the wrong message.
“What would Jesus want you to do?” he said. “I don’t think he would be writing letters to the president and making a big deal saying we don’t want these kids because they are not U.S. citizens.”
The issue has even divided some national immigration experts. Mary Giovagnoli, director of policy for the the American Immigration Council a Washington, D.C.-based progressive advocacy group, said, “If you are a welcoming city how can you turn away kids? It’s wonderful to see your mayor stand up and say ‘we are welcoming.’”
But Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which calls itself an independent, nonpartisan research organization, said putting out a welcome mat for immigrants is a bad idea. He disputes the notion the immigrants are an economic boon and said, “What it really means is Americans suck and we need foreigners to make our cities better.”
Highly educated immigrants may add to the economy, Krikorian said, but “somebody with a second grade education from Honduras does not” and will simply cost taxpayers for decades.
The Turner letter was signed by Kingseed, the three Greene County commissioners, Beavercreek Mayor Brian Jarvis and Montgomery County Sheriff Phil Plummer, who is also the chairman of the Montgomery County GOP. It accuses Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley of contacting federal officials and offering Dayton as a site.
Whaley and other city officials say the feds contacted Dayton first — just as they have contacted officials in Columbus, Cincinnati and other cities — to ask if facilities suitable for a temporary shelter were available to house the children while they await immigration court hearings or placement in private homes.
Dayton City Manager Tim Riordan suggested two vacant sites that fit the federal criteria: the former Naval Reserve facility in the 400 block of North Gettysburg Ave. and the former Heidelberg Distributing facility at 931 Deeds Ave.
City officials say any proposal would be fully vetted before moving forward, and that the federal government would handle the costs. But Turner last week questioned that assumption, saying Whaley and others are “dangerously ill-informed.”
“No one who has any of these sites in their community or region is having the experience that apparently the mayor believes is going to happen here,” he said.
Turner said he is working with U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., to give states the right to reject federal proposals to establish housing facilities for “unaccompanied alien children.”
Turner did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Whaley said the situation at the border is a “humanitarian crisis in America and Daytonians have to do their part and have compassion and help America out.
“This is about these children getting due process and going through the immigration process,” she said.
‘We need to take care of our own’
Plummer said he signed the letter out of concern that taxpayer resources are at stake and that some of the children could join gangs here and get involved in the heroin trade.
“Is anyone vetting these kids? Is anybody doing background checks on these kids?” Plummer asked.
“We need to take care of our own first. That’s not a selfish point of view. Everybody says the federal government is going to pay for this, but it is still our tax dollars.”
The issue of children crossing the border with no available parent or legal guardian is not new. In federal fiscal year 2009, the U.S. Border Patrol apprehended nearly 20,000 of them, almost all from the U.S.-Mexican border. But the numbers are up dramatically since then, with nearly 57,000 apprehended at the southwest border between Oct. 1 and June 30, just three quarters of the way through the 2014 fiscal year.
Most of the unaccompanied immigrant children are from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, with Mexican children increasingly making up a smaller share of the total. Federal law allows quick return of Mexican and Canadian children to their home countries after a short screening process to determine if they are victims of human trafficking or have some other asylum claim.
Those with potentially valid claims and all children from non-contiguous countries must be turned over to the refugee resettlement program operated by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) and placed in shelters or with sponsors in the U.S. — typically relatives — while their immigration cases are resolved.
HHS officials estimate that about 90,000 unaccompanied immigrant children will have been referred to the program during the current fiscal year that ends on Sept. 30, a vast increase over the 7,000 to 8,000 on average who had been served annually prior to when numbers began to spike in 2012.
While 75 percent of those in the resettlement program are boys and most are over age 14, officials say increasing numbers of girls and children under age 13 have been crossing the border.
‘They are human beings’
The children in the HHS program are given well-child and mental examinations, vaccinations and medical care and kept in about 100 short-term shelters throughout the United States, including three temporary facilities opened in border states to deal with the influx.
Children typically stay in the program for 35 days. All but about 4,000 of the nearly 54,000 children referred to the program so far this fiscal year have been discharged, including 360 discharged to sponsors in Ohio, according to HHS. Children live with those sponsors or remain in the government’s care while their cases are considered by the immigration courts.
The HHS shelters such as those that could be built in Dayton provide all services in-house, according to an HHS fact sheet. The fact sheet said children do not go to area schools, are not permitted to “roam the local town” and can only visit area attractions while closely supervised by staff.
Many of those who work with immigrants or study the issue say the children are chasing a dream of a better life, just like the millions of immigrants who settled America. They say the desperation of parents is evident by their apparent willingness to put their children into the hands of smugglers to make the long, dangerous trip to the United States.
“These kids are fleeing from gangs and narco-traffickers,” Giovagnoli said. “Generally they are young, scared, many of them have been abused, many of them are very poor.”
Jamie Longazel, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Dayton who has studied immigration, said it is important to remember “they are human beings.”
“I don’t think taking care of the migrant children (crossing) at the border means we are doing so at the exception of everyone else,” Longazel said.
Staff Writer Thomas Gnau contributed to this story.
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