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Lawmakers scramble on child immigration

MigrationLaws and LegislationImmigrationJim GerlachU.S. CongressPat Meehan

— Questions continue to swirl around the young immigrants flooding across the border, forcing congressmen to scramble for scarce details, including information on the children's whereabouts.

On Tuesday, Lehigh Valley Congressman Charlie Dent is heading to western Berks County, where a Christian children's ministry has been sheltering up to 32 children at a time since mid-June.

The facility isn't in his district — it's in neighboring Rep. Jim Gerlach's district. But Dent and Rep. Pat Meehan are joining fellow Republican Gerlach to tour Bethany Children's Home and meet some of the Central American children there.

The Womelsdorf facility is at least the second Pennsylvania location that is housing and caring for some of the more than 57,000 unaccompanied children who have crossed the southern border since October. KidsPeace, a national nonprofit based in the Lehigh Valley, began its program last year.

Bethany Children's Home CEO Kevin Snyder said in an interview that his facility made 32 beds available for the young immigrants last month. The children — who range in age from 4 to 14 — have been staying for an average of 10 to 12 days before being connected with relatives living elsewhere in the United States.

So far, Bethany has united about 60 children with family members in Ohio, New Jersey and other states.

"This is one of biggest crises involving children since the Civil War, when we were founded," Snyder said. "Our part of this puzzle is to give these children a safe place and get them back with their families."

As federal officials rush to find places to house the children, some lawmakers and residents say the children should be immediately deported. Republican Congressman Lou Barletta has raised questions about potential safety impacts in host communities, and recently held a news conference to voice his opposition to the potential for housing young immigrants in Hazleton, where he once was mayor.

In California, immigration opponents halted buses carrying some of the children. In the Lehigh Valley, a protest Sunday in Salisbury Township outside KidsPeace was less boisterous, but federal officials have remained fairly tight-lipped about shelter locations.

President Barack Obama has called on Congress to approve $3.7 billion in emergency funds to pay for the young migrants' care and to speed up their legal processing. The House and Senate are working to complete their own proposals to cope with the controversial issue.

Members of Congress are under pressure to be visible and vocal on the issue, said Chris Borick, a political scientist at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.

"This has really captivated a lot of public attention," Borick said, "and I don't think any [lawmaker] wants to be caught appearing to be sleeping on the issue."

Dent's spokesman, Shawn Millan, said that while the facility is outside the Republican legislator's immediate area, he represents portions of northern Berks County and the Bethany program is being treated as a countywide issue.

Dent's 15th District is based in Lehigh County, Gerlach's 6th District in Chester County and Meehan's 7th District in Delaware County. All three districts include a section of Berks County. Barletta's 11th District is based in Luzerne County, and locally includes parts of Carbon County.

Millan said Dent's office also has reached out to KidsPeace to learn about its program and to arrange a tour. The nonprofit has directed questions about its services to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees care for the children as they await immigration hearings.

Dent's planned Berks County visit comes a day after he announced his support for a bipartisan measure from two Texas legislators — Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar and Republican Sen. John Cornyn — aimed at speeding up the process for deporting children who arrive from countries that don't share a border with the United States.

Their bill would alter a 2008 law that sought to address human trafficking by giving more protections to children from non-contiguous countries. Those from Mexico or Canada can be immediately deported, but that law means the recent wave from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador must go through a different process.

Under the Cuellar/Cornyn bill, the recent arrivals would appear before an immigration judge within seven days of being screened. Dent, who was in the U.S. House when the 2008 law was approved on a voice vote, said in a statement Monday that speedily repatriating the children is "the best thing we can do as a compassionate country."

"The current law needs reform. The proof of that is in the photographs of children sleeping on floors in holding facilities," Dent said. "I'm supporting this proposal because it is a thoughtful, common sense, bipartisan solution to the problem."

lolson@mcall.com

Twitter @lauraolson

202-824-8216

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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