Sen. Mark Kirk said his office launched an effort to connect young immigrants in the Chicago area with religious organizations and community groups on Monday, about a month after the Republican drew fire for demanding that children who've recently crossed the southern U.S. border undergo criminal background checks.
Kirk said the latest effort, in conjunction with local pastors and community groups, is designed to make sure the children coming from Central America are supported.
"I want to make sure that these kids have the widest possible, faith-based network to fall back on while they're in detention," Kirk said Monday during an appearance with a group of pastors outside a Little Village church.
Religious leaders and Kirk's office said the program would connect pastors and community groups with children who are detained in the area or have been released to local sponsors to await immigration proceedings. The program, the senator's office said, would also work to provide English proficiency training, gang-resistance mentoring and faith-based counseling.
"We want to make sure that they're loved, that they're cared for and that there's a good network taking care of them," said Chris Ophus of New Life Community Church in Little Village.
There are currently nine shelters in the area for children held in the custody of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The senator, citing a meeting with two young immigrants during a recent visit to an area shelter, said faith-based interventions were critical for the children's future.
"When you're a 10-year-old, a 13-year-old, in a foreign country, you need pastoral care," Kirk said. "You absolutely need to learn from the Bible and hear about the tribulations of Jesus to give you strength, as we all have been given by religion."
Last month, Kirk said the children arriving in the United States were at risk for recruitment from transnational gangs and that he would endorse legislation to speed the children's deportation, increase the number of immigration judges and condition foreign aid on border security.
Kirk's comments then drew flak from local immigrant rights advocates, who said shelters for unaccompanied children have long operated in the area. Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Chicago accused Kirk of exploiting the children for political gain.
Health and Human Services officials have said the department has long operated shelters in many states, including Illinois, for children who enter the U.S. without a parent. Officials said children stay in the shelters on average for less than 35 days, until they are placed with a sponsor or relative while awaiting an immigration proceeding.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration has also unveiled an effort to bring as many as 1,000 additional children to new shelters in the Chicago area, which has led to some concerns about a need for more money to keep up.
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