WASHINGTON — After Republican Sen. Mark Kirk said Thursday that 429 unaccompanied minors from the Mexican border crisis were in Chicago and urged they undergo criminal background checks, he drew fire today from an immigrant-rights group and Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Chicago.
Kirk, an Illinois Republican, said in a news release that the children were in the custody of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department. Kirk’s spokeswoman did not respond to questions about where the children were.
Jennifer Chan, with the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago, said today that the children — the number of whom she declined to specify — were in “Chicagoland” shelters whose locations were not disclosed so as to protect the children’s safety and privacy. She would not say whether “Chicagoland” meant the city and its suburbs.
The immigrant justice center, she said, has a contract with the federal government to provide legal services to unaccompanied migrant children who are in the area shelters and has done so for years. She criticized Kirk for his statement regarding their detention.
“I think that Sen. Kirk is making a lot out of nothing,” she said, describing the long-standing shelters as secure. “It’s not something people should panic about. Children aren’t running loose on the streets or anything.
“The children are in the secure custody of HHS. It’s not a detention setting; it’s a kid’s shelter. But they can’t just walk out the door.”
The immigrant-rights center “has seen thousands of children come through Chicagoland shelters over the years,” said Chan, its associate director of policy.
Gutierrez reacted to Kirk’s statement with even sharper criticism, saying Kirk “should be ashamed of himself.”
“Rather than exploiting and demonizing children to score political points, how about the senator works with the president to solve a national problem?” Gutierrez asked.
The House lawmaker pointed out that Kirk on Thursday also called for a crackdown on human rights abusers in Iran and in March spoke out against human traffickers, including child-sex traffickers.
Gutierrez accused Kirk of pulling a “stunt” by questioning whether the children were a threat.
“Among the children are little girls who are fleeing those who would abuse their bodies,” Gutierrez said. “Sen. Kirk, open your heart.”
In Kirk’s release Thursday, he said the State Department was unable to confirm if any of the 429 unaccompanied minors in Chicago who crossed the Mexican border had a criminal record or background.
The senator added: “If any of these individuals has a criminal record in their home country, our government owes it to the American people to facilitate the sharing of records and reassure our nation that these individuals pose no threat.”
Kirk said he had written to the U.S. ambassadors in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador asking whether their embassies have done background checks on the “unaccompanied alien children” who have entered the U.S. at its southern border.
He said 57,000 unaccompanied children from Central American countries have crossed the border since October.
Kirk, in his letter to the ambassadors, said the humanitarian crisis has the potential to pose a “serious threat to our country and communities” if the children have criminal records.
In a statement today, Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for HHS’s Administration for Children and Families, said the department for years has operated shelters in many states, including Illinois, for children who enter the U.S. without a parent.
The children stay in the shelters until they are placed with a sponsor or relative while awaiting an immigration proceeding, he said.
“These shelters are consistently quiet and good neighbors in the communities where they are located,” Wolfe said.
He said the shelters have “minimal” impact on local communities and the department pays for the services the children need, including food, clothing, education and medical screenings.
On average, children spend fewer than 35 days in shelters and “do not integrate into the local community,” Wolfe said. “They remain under staff supervision at all times.”
He said because of the influx of unaccompanied children crossing the border, the department has opened temporary shelters on a total of three military bases in Texas, Oklahoma and California.
At the National Immigrant Justice Center, Chan said the children in Chicago shelters were fingerprinted and screened for “any history of violence.”
“I would note that’s not really something that comes up with these children by any means,” she said.
She said the center’s legal screening of the children sought to determine why they had come, what their experience was on the journey to the U.S. and whether they were eligible for legal protections in this country.
A measure signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2008 gave additional protections to unaccompanied migrant children from countries not contiguous to the United States, that is, any country except Mexico and Canada.
Asked for reaction to Gutierrez’s remarks, an aide for Kirk did not immediately respond.