DES MOINES — Central American children who have crossed the U.S. border illegally are making their way to Iowa “behind the scenes” with the help of family members and support groups to avoid drawing attention or the ire of protesters, an Iowa Latino leader said Tuesday.
Joe Enriquez Henry, state director of the League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa, or LULAC, a Latino civil rights organization founded in 1929, said he is aware of family members who have driven to the Mexican border to be reunited with unaccompanied children who have sought refuge from the violence in their countries.
Henry said the activity has been forced to operate “in the shadows” in part because of Gov. Terry Branstad’s public opposition to efforts to welcome children to Iowa who have entered the United States illegally.
Branstad’s office said Tuesday an official with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services confirmed that 122 children were released to relatives or other sponsors in Iowa during the past six months.
“To clarify, there have been 122 minors discharged from the Unaccompanied Alien Children program and placed with sponsors in Iowa between January 1 and June 30, 2014,” Kenneth J. Wolfe, deputy director of the Office of Public Affairs within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families, said in an email.
Beth Levine of Iowa U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley’s office said, however, that Health and Human Services officials on Tuesday updated the number to 139 through July 18, a figure that reflected children released to sponsors in Iowa but did not address minors who may have been sent to larger facilities.
Branstad spokesman Jimmy Centers said the development was a surprise, “especially given that Gov. Branstad met with U.S. HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell who never mentioned it.” Centers said federal officials confirmed the placement in Iowa but had not responded to a request for more information.
Enriquez Henry said he did not have an accurate count on how many of the thousands of unaccompanied children who have crossed the U.S. border in recent months are in Iowa because families members involved “want to remain quiet about it” because some of them, too, are not documented to be in this country.
“What you’ve heard is happening, and it will continue to happen,” Enriquez Henry said in a telephone interview. “The stories that these kids are telling family members about are terrible and frightening.
“It is a crisis. We are glad that we have some of these young refugees here in Iowa, and we would look forward to welcoming more of these young people.
“I know that there’s been a number of Latinos who have driven down to Mexico over the last couple of months, and I’m sure that one of the reasons is to help out family members who have crossed the border or who wanted to cross the border.
“But it’s a very quiet thing because these Latinos families, some of them would not be documented in the first place, so to be helping some of their relatives, they definitely want to be very private about it until such point that they realize that these kids are welcome in Iowa.”
Enriquez Henry said “it is very possible” more children will be sent to Iowa and LULAC members in places such as Des Moines, Davenport, Storm Lake and other urban centers are preparing for their arrival with the help of resources from the group’s national office and some corporate donors.
“When these refugees come in larger numbers to Iowa and elsewhere, our organization is going to be there to support them,” he said. “It’s going to be hard to get accurate numbers until the elected leader of this state becomes more welcoming.”
Centers said Iowa officials were unaware of any placements, and Amy Lorentzen McCoy of the Iowa Department of Human Services said the federal Office of Refugee Settlement generally has not made contact with state officials since the federal government took over the program in 2002.
“We’re not involved in the custody transport or placement of unaccompanied alien children,” McCoy said. “We just don’t have a role with them.”
Centers said federal officials are offering little transparency to states where they’re attempting to place children. He noted there are no illegal immigrant shelters in Iowa, nor are there illegal immigrants from the southern border crisis in state facilities.
“Gov. Branstad empathizes with the children who are seeking a better life in America, but he believes we must secure our border first and follow immigration laws already in place,” Centers said. “The governor is concerned that the situation at the border, if not handled properly, may encourage others to attempt the very dangerous journey across Central America and Mexico.”
During his weekly news conference Monday, Branstad reiterated his opposition to placing unaccompanied children who came to the U.S. border illegally from Central American countries in Iowa, saying he did not view them as refugees but rather as law violators.
Branstad said the current situation with children smuggled into this country illegally is different from the 1970s when former Gov. Bob Ray led a national effort to resettle refugees from Southeast Asia who were uprooted by war and political upheaval that forced them to immigrate to the United States legally.
Enriquez Henry said the governor’s position is “not sitting well with the Latino community” and is driving activities underground.
“It’s going to be very hard until the governor does the right thing and makes it clear that these kids are refugees and that we should be lending support,” he said. “When the head elected leader of this state does that, it changes everything. It forces things to happen behind the scenes, and that’s just not right.
“We have many churches and nonprofits welcoming these refugees. But if you don’t have state government on the same page, it makes it very hard for federal resources to flow directly into these communities in a public way because there is a fear now that there’s going to be a group of protesters or hate mongers who are going to try to stop it.
“I would not expect the federal government to send out a press release of where these kids are going or who is setting it up because it will create another type of tragedy for these kids, and we don’t want to see that happen.”
Faith-based groups in Iowa have advocated bringing to Iowa some of the thousands of children from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras who have been detained at the southern U.S. border, and the Eychaner Foundation established a grassroots effort to relocate at 1,000 in Iowa via its 1000KidsforIOWA.com website.
Eychaner Foundation Project Director Jessica Brackett said that in a week’s time, the effort has identified 113 homes offering 139 beds for children who would come to Iowa.
Donors have made pledges of clothing, food, medical assistance, volunteer time and translation, educational and other support services, as well as $2,450 in financial contributions and pledges totaling $10,000 targeted for arrival when the children actually arrive in the state, she said.
“We’re collecting our resources at this time and building the network that will be in place and ready for them when they arrive,” Brackett said. “In the first week, we’ve reached 14 percent of our goal, so that’s a success.”