While Congress is in Washington debating President Barack Obama’s proposal to spend more than $3 billion to address the immigration crisis the nation is currently facing, and Republicans argue that border security measures need to be taken immediately, the Department of Health and Human Services is still struggling to find housing for the more than 65,000 immigrant children that have entered the U.S. from Central America over the last year.
Tucson is one of those locations, with a facility on Oracle and Drachman roads being used to house up to 280 children in the 144-bed facility.
Texas-based Southwest Key is housing the children at a facility on Oracle Road, north of downtown. The building used to be a motel, and most recently a studio apartment complex.
In June, the Southwest Keys website advertised for more than 270 jobs in Tucson, ranging from cooks to teachers and youth care workers.
Ally Miller, the District 1 supervisor of the Pima County Board of Supervisors, jumped into the debate last week, sending a letter to Ariz. Gov. Jan Brewer.
“In light of the recent public protest in Murreita, Calif., I believe it is in the best interest of the public to be better informed, prepared and educated as to any health concerns that have arisen as a result of the children and young adults being kept in the area,” Miller said. “I want to ensure the information we have and that in which is being distributed, is accurate and comprehensive so that residents are confident in the management of this public health matter.”
Miller said she doesn’t believe the Pima County Health Department has the means necessary to effectively inform and monitor the government’s handling of the situation.
Miller said the Center for Disease Control (CDC) did respond, stating there is no health risk posed in local communities.
Dr. Francisco Garcia, the Pima County director of health, said the unaccompanied minors that are sheltered or in transit through Pima County do not currently constitute a public health threat to the community.
“This is based on my current understanding of the function and operation of the local contracted shelter facility with regard to medical care, education and restriction of movement of the minors,” Garcia said.”
Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz. Congressional District 1, said she understands the public’s concerns surrounding health issues.
“It is valid to have the safety concerns,” she said. “However, the children are undergoing initial screening and getting vaccinated and evaluated. The most important thing here is to keep these children safe from coyotes.”
The Tucson facility isn’t the only place the unaccompanied minors, crossing the border primarily in Texas, will be housed locally.
During a Tucson appearance last week, Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu announced that about 50 immigration children will be placed at the Sycamore Creek Boys Ranch in Oracle. The children are expected some time this week.
Babeu is not happy with the idea, telling a group of residents that he’s worried about safety issues. Babeu has also been outspoken in recent years over the lack of control on the U.S. border.
Oracle resident Bob Skiba said he’s very upset that some of the immigrant children will be housed in his hometown, stressing that he feels there’s too much secrecy about how many children, health concerns and how long they will be held here.
“I believe in the rule of the law,” he said. “They have violated the law by coming here. Put them on the bus and send them back home.”
However, simply stopping the children at the border and sending them directly back home isn’t that simple given a 2008 law passed during the Bush administration that requires a certain amount of due process.
Kirkpatrick said she’s willing to vote in favor of President Obama’s request for $3.7 billion in emergency funds because the money will go toward hiring more judges and attorneys to process the children, as well as putting more man power on the U.S. border where an estimated 1,000 children are crossing each day. At the current rate, the U.S. is sending about 1,800 children back per year.
The children, primarily from Central America, are pawns in a drug war, according to Kirkpatrick.
“This is really heartbreaking for children and their families, it is really a humanitarian crisis,” Kirkpatrick said. “The drug cartels in Central America are recruiting these children to join the drug gangs. Parents of these children don’t want that, so they are sending them to America.”
In a statement last week, Ron Barber, D-Congressional District 2, said he wants to hear details as to how the president plans to spend the $3.7 billion in emergency funds before he will vote for final approval.
“It is unacceptable that it has taken a massive humanitarian crisis in which tens of thousands of children have entered our country illegally to get the president and Washington to take notice and act,” Barber said. “The president says he needs $3.7 billion to address this crisis. I look forward to hearing how he proposes to allocate the funds, specifically the $433 million he wants for Customs and Border Protection.”
Rep. Steve Smith, of the Arizona House of Representatives, said while the drug cartels are part of the problem, the major increase in children crossing the border is a problem created by the Obama administration.
“It’s a travesty for the Obama administration to use these children as a pawn in his push for more amnesty,” Smith said. “We have our own abused children, yet, we are bussing these children into our communities.”
At the state level, Smith said lawmakers are frustrated that there is little they can do while the federal government continues to let the problem get even more out of control.
As the problem grows, Kirkpatrick said it’s a strong sign that Congress must pull together to approve immigration reform.
Over the last week, as Republicans question Obama’s request for $3.7 billion in emergency funds, Arizona senators Jeff Flake and John McCain introduced legislation that would amend the Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 to allow for expedited removal of unaccompanied minors who have illegally entered the U.S.