Maryland religious leaders issued a call for families to offer foster care to immigrant children from Central America as part of an effort to see that unaccompanied minors find shelter in homes rather than in barracks.

Faith leaders who met with Gov. Martin O'Malley at the State House on Monday said as many as 2,000 children are expected to join more than 2,200 who have already found homes in Maryland, often with relatives, since the beginning of the year. Maryland has already taken in more of the immigrant children than all but a handful of large states.

Aid officials expect that about 95 percent of the children yet to arrive in Maryland will eventually be placed with relatives. However, some may require foster care while family members are located, and a smaller number may need longer-term shelter.

Dozens of religious leaders and others released a joint statement Monday urging Marylanders to help.

"While it may be possible to house many children in large shelters, this is clearly not the ideal setting for caring for children through their teenage years. Instead, the most urgent need right now is for foster homes to care for a child or two while they [await] their legal processing or reuniting with their families," the faith leaders wrote.

Bishop Wolfgang D. Herz-Lane of the Delaware-Maryland Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church said the Christian, Jewish, Muslim and other religious leaders who met with the governor were united in their determination to care for children who in many cases have traveled thousands of miles by themselves to escape violence in their homes countries.

"These are innocent children. These are not hardened criminals who are fleeing from the law in their own countries," Herz-Lane said.

The Obama administration has considered and rejected at least two potential sites in Maryland for shelters to house hundreds of children, but will not comment on additional sites that might be under scrutiny.

Ted Dallas, state secretary of human resources, said he doesn't know whether federal officials are considering other sites for shelters in Maryland.

"It's possible there are sites they are looking at I don't know about," he said.

Dallas said the federal government will cover the costs of foster care or shelters for the children, but officials did not have an estimate of costs to the state of dealing with the influx. The young immigrants crossing the borders without permission are not eligible for such government benefits as food stamps or medical assistance, but would be expected to attend school and from time to time show up in emergency rooms.

The O'Malley administration has stepped up its efforts to identify people and organizations willing to help immigrant children who show up in Maryland. It posted a notice on the state government website, md.gov, asking for people willing to provide a variety of services and offering information on such topics as foster care. Among other things, the site is seeking lawyers willing to work pro bono with children facing immigration proceedings to determine their fate.

Some of the children are applying for a status that allows them to stay in the U.S. if they can demonstrate they have been abused, neglected or abandoned in their native country.

The immigration issue has found its way into the governor's race as Republican nominee Larry Hogan said Monday he opposes O'Malley's efforts to promote foster homes and even small group homes to shelter the children. Spokesman Adam Dubitsky said Hogan feels families should be reunited in their home countries as quickly and as safely as possible.

"These kids have already been through enough," he said.

In contrast, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, the Democratic standard bearer, supported the state's efforts to find homes for them.

"While the federal government should ensure the physical safety of these children, identify their parents, and return them whenever possible, Maryland should do our part by temporarily moving a small number of these children into our foster care and social services system," he said in a statement issued by his campaign.

Brown added that Congress should fully reimburse state and local governments for their costs.

O'Malley's meeting with the faith leaders was his second in as many weeks on the border crisis, which has brought an estimated 60,000 unaccompanied minors to the United States since last October. The governor has staked out a position in favor of welcoming the children as refugees rather than treating them as illegal economic immigrants.

Administration officials did not offer many specifics about the meeting.

William J. McCarthy Jr., executive director of Catholic Charities in Maryland, said the leaders decided to break into four work groups focused on different aspects of the surge in child immigration. He said four topics will be: identifying financial resources, arranging for services such as medical and dental care and legal advice, short-term group shelter, and foster care.

Catholic Charities has been seeking to house 50 children from Central America at St. Vincent's Villa, a residential facility on Dulaney Valley Road in Baltimore County.

McCarthy said it's difficult to estimate how many Central American children will wind up in Maryland because it depends on future trends at the border. But with about half of the children who crossed having been placed, he said it's reasonable to anticipate that Maryland could become at least a temporary home to another 2,000 to 3,000 – most of them through family reunification.

"Everyone is united that there is a humanitarian crisis and there is a moral imperative to take care of the children," McCarthy said.

O'Malley aides reiterated Monday that the governor's first preference after family reunification is to provide foster care for underage immigrants. Only as a last resort would Maryland shelter them in group homes, the aides said. Even in that case, they said, the governor favors smaller facilities over larger ones.

The administration has acknowledged the possibility that some "congregate housing" could be located in Maryland as a way station before children are placed with families. However, administration officials did not identify any potential sites Monday other than St. Vincent's. They did, however, acknowledge that they were talking with local officials about potential group shelter sites.

In Montgomery County, home of one of Maryland's largest Central American communities, officials are considering a number of sites. They hope to find one in coming days that could house about 20 children, said county spokesman Patrick Lacefield. He would not say where the potential sites are located.

The spike in the number of unaccompanied children crossing the southern border has strained the country's resources for caring for them. Officials expect the number to reach 90,000 by the end of September amid continuing violence in Central America.

While some conservatives have called for the speedy deportation of the young immigrants, federal law requires that children who come here from nations other than Canada and Mexico without authorization be given an immigration hearing to determine whether they may meet U.S. criteria to stay.

In part because of the scope of the increase in crossings – and the added resources required to vet individual families – there has been little talk at the federal level so far of placing children who don't have family in the country already with foster families rather than keeping them at shelters temporarily.

The Obama administration is requesting Congress approve billions in new funding to deal with the influx of minors. The version of that legislation supported by Senate Democratic leaders would allocate $1.2 billion to bolster shelter capacity nationally.

Federal health officials have warned that without additional capacity, more children will be forced to stay at border detention facilities intended for adults.

Even without a group shelter, Maryland has been quietly absorbing a large number of the new immigrants. According to the Health and Human Services Department, between Jan. 1 and July 7 Maryland took in 2,205 unaccompanied immigrant children as their cases work their way through immigration proceedings.

That means that on a per capita basis, Maryland has had more unaccompanied immigrant children settled with sponsors than any other state. Administration officials said that is a result of the high proportion of Maryland residents who come from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala — the countries most of the immigrant children are fleeing.

Baltimore Sun reporter John Fritze contributed to this article.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com