Gov. Martin O'Malley and a group of faith leaders agreed Monday that thousands of immigrant children who have poured into the United States should be housed in foster homes and other small settings, not large centers as the federal government has proposed.
The governor invited about 50 religious leaders and others to meet at the State House in response to the crisis that has developed along the nation's southern border as tens of thousands of unaccompanied children — many fleeing violence in Central America — have entered the country seeking refuge.
Participants said O'Malley and the group reached a consensus that an Obama administration plan to create centers for 500 children or more was not the best way to deal with the influx of underage refugees, who cannot be sent back to their homes before receiving an immigration hearing.
"It was very clear that the governor and most of us find those large facilities are absolutely the wrong way to go," said Barbara Gradet, executive director of community services for the Baltimore Jewish Council. "We all fear it would be institutionalizing these kids."
Julie Gilbert Rosicky, executive director of the Baltimore-based U.S. chapter of International Social Service, said there was little disagreement during the meeting, the governor's first with faith leaders on the topic.
"Everyone had the same goal in mind, which was to provide family-based care for vulnerable children," Rosicky said. "Kids need to be in families that care."
Nina Smith, a spokeswoman for the governor, said the group included Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims.
Aides to the governor said O'Malley's first preference is to promote the reunification of refugee children with family members in Maryland. They said the second would be to place children in homes through the federal foster care system, noting that the U.S. government has legal custody of the youths.
The officials said the third option, which they called "congregate housing," is the least desirable but did not rule out setting up such facilities. Smith said any group sites would have to be "safe, secure and humane" but did not specify a maximum size.
Participants in the meeting generally expressed approval of the governor's efforts, saying his emphasis during Monday's meeting was to explore ways to place children in the best settings possible. They said O'Malley asked them to try to identify resources for placing the children but did not press for specific commitments, such as the number of beds a particular religious institution could provide.
The Rev. Jacek Orzechowski of St. Camillus Catholic Church in Silver Spring said Monday's meeting was a first step and that the group expects to meet with the administration again as soon as next week to continue their efforts.
"All of us have agreed this is a kind of moral test for our nation to show that we are a nation that is compassionate, that is just," the Franciscan priest said.
An estimated 57,000 children have entered the United States illegally since October — more than double the total for the same period in the previous year. Officials expect the number to reach 90,000 by the end of September amid continuing violence in Central America.
Over the past few weeks, O'Malley has emerged as a leading national advocate of a policy that would welcome the immigrant children — many of them from strife-torn Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala — as refugees. At the same time, he has resisted federal consideration of a large former military facility in Westminster as a site for housing such immigrants.
The governor's position led to criticism from the White House that O'Malley, who is expected to seek the Democratic nomination for president in 2016, was trying to have it both ways.
Participants in the meeting said they did not get the sense that O'Malley was trying to avoid having Maryland take in immigrant children. They said the governor, along with the religious leaders, was trying to find the best approach to caring for them.
"I don't think there was any question of pushing it off on anyone else," said Bishop Denis J. Madden, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Madden said Archbishop William E. Lori, who was traveling Monday, called O'Malley on Friday and offered the archdiocese's support for the governor's efforts to mobilize a response to the crisis.
Madden said much of the conversation centered around foster care and what religious institutions can do to encourage families to take in immigrant children who can't be reunited with family members. The bishop said it is likely that Catholics – and perhaps those of other faiths – will be hearing appeals from the pulpit to consider becoming foster parents to refugees.
Gustavo Torres, executive director of the immigrant rights group Casa de Maryland, noted that one obstacle to getting immigrant children into foster care is that many of them speak only Spanish, while willing foster parents may not. But Torres said that problem is not insurmountable and that Casa would be willing to help such families overcome language barriers.
Aides to O'Malley said the governor's close interest in the topic of Central American children stems in part from his visit last year to El Salvador, when he met with mayors and local security officials to discuss the violent crime issues they were facing.
Smith noted that Maryland has one of the highest percentages of residents of Salvadoran origin in the country and that it is also home to many Hondurans and Guatemalans.