State and local officials are working with federal authorities to identify a shelter in Maryland for Central American children crossing the U.S. border after at least four potential sites fell through, including one that was opposed by Gov. Martin O'Malley.
Aides to O'Malley said Wednesday that the state and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services are considering a new facility in Maryland, but officials declined to say where it is or how many children it could hold. Baltimore officials said they are also open to housing some of the children.
Discussion of new possible shelters in Maryland came a day after O'Malley and the White House engaged in a rare public spat that began when the Obama administration apparently leaked word that the governor had attempted to wave federal officials off a potential shelter in Carroll County.
Some suggested that O'Malley was hypocritical for urging compassion for the children while arguing against a shelter in his state, but the dust-up appeared to work to his benefit politically. The Democrat, who is considering a run for president in 2016, won praise from the state's largest immigrant-rights group.
"When we heard about the proposed Westminster site, our immediate thought was that the only place in Maryland less hospitable to children fleeing violence in Central America would be inside the Frederick County sheriff's department building," said Kimberly Propeack, an attorney with CASA de Maryland.
She was referring to Sheriff Charles A. "Chuck" Jenkins, an outspoken critic of illegal immigration.
"We think [O'Malley] is right to question why the administration would propose the most anti-immigrant locations rather than the many other parts of the state," Propeack said.
CNN, citing an unnamed official, reported Tuesday that O'Malley stated his objection to using a former Army Reserve Center outside Westminster to house children to White House adviser Cecilia Munoz late last week.
Word of that conversation came days after O'Malley publicly questioned the Obama administration's proposal to expedite the deportation of some children.
"We are not a country that should turn children away and send them back to certain death," the governor said Friday during a meeting of the National Governors Association in Nashville, Tenn.
In response to the report about his phone call with Munoz, O'Malley told CNN on Wednesday that he was expressing only that Carroll County "would not be the most inviting site" in the state.
"Whatever the motivation was of the people at the White House that leaked it to you, I'll leave [to] you to determine," he said.
The governor declined an interview request from The Baltimore Sun.
Federal health officials have assessed four sites in Maryland as potential shelters: A vacant office building in Baltimore, a private school in Montgomery County, a former orphanage in Prince George's County and the former Army Reserve Center outside Westminster. Two of them — the sites in Baltimore and Carroll County — generated controversy.
The 3.8-acre military property near Westminster, which lacks security and running water, was probably too small to be converted to a shelter. But news that the federal government was looking at the property, first reported last week by The Sun, sparked a backlash from county officials.
A day after the government decided against pursuing the site, a vandal spray-painted the words "no illeagles here" on the side of the building. State police are investigating the graffiti as a hate crime.
In his statement last week, O'Malley questioned a request by the Obama administration to change a 2008 law that makes it more difficult for the government to send back children who make it to the United States from countries that do not border it. The White House wants Congress to give administration officials more latitude to expedite removals.
His statement also meant he was aligning himself with liberal Democrats in Congress who have voiced concerns about changes in the law. The governor has occasionally sought to stake out positions to the left of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who polls show currently leads the potential field of Democratic presidential candidates in 2016.
By Wednesday, aides to both O'Malley and Obama attempted to shift the conversation back to the children. About 57,000 have entered the United States illegally since October, more than double the number during the same period the previous year. Most are fleeing violence in the Central American countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest declined to say whether the White House had leaked the details of the call.
"I can tell you that we strongly value the working relationship that we have with Governor O'Malley," Earnest told reporters. "There are a whole range of issues on which we've worked closely with the O'Malley administration to benefit the people of Maryland.
"I think the most that we can ask for state and local officials is to demonstrate a clear willingness to work with us to find an appropriate place where these individuals could be detained and their humanitarian needs could be met," he added. "That sounds like what the O'Malley administration is promising, and I take them at their word."
Indeed, state officials — who previously were reluctant to discuss their efforts on the issue — went out of their way Wednesday to note all of the steps they said the O'Malley administration has taken.
Aides said the state has been working with the federal government for weeks, and that officials initiated a "statement of need" that should speed the licensing if a site is identified.
"Governor O'Malley is willing to welcome unaccompanied children from the humanitarian crisis at the border into Maryland," O'Malley spokeswoman Nina Smith said in a statement. "He and other state officials have been working with federal partners for weeks on efforts to find suitable shelter for unaccompanied children in Maryland."
Aides said the federal government is looking at a new site in the state, but declined to provide details. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services does not comment on potential shelter sites.
O'Malley said Wednesday that "hundreds of kids [are] already located throughout Maryland" — an apparent reference to nonprofit groups such as the Board of Child Care of the United Methodist Church that are taking care of the children.
It is not clear exactly how many are already in the state in those smaller group settings.
A spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, meanwhile, said the city also is looking for sites that could serve as a haven for the children.
"We continue to be participants in the process to find a solution for this humanitarian crisis," spokesman Kevin Harris said. "There are some sites that have been kicked around that are in Baltimore, and we are continuing to evaluate them."
Harris declined to name any of the potential sites and said he did not have information on a timeline for a site to be selected. Rawlings-Blake and other officials opposed the assessment of a vacant office complex in West Baltimore that was under review earlier this year.
The site, which previously housed Social Security Administration employees, was also opposed by Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Ben Cardin of Maryland.
O'Malley did not comment publicly on that site.