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Questions linger over the sheltering of immigrant kids in Massachusetts

Massachusetts residents and lawmakers are awaiting specifics after Gov. Deval Patrick announced that the state will open its arms to as many as 1,000 unaccompanied children who are fleeing violence in Central America.

Unaccompanied immigrant children would be kept at the Joint Base Cape Cod in Bourne. Photo: Nicolaus Czarnecki/Metro Unaccompanied immigrant children would be kept at the Joint Base Cape Cod in Bourne. Photo: Nicolaus Czarnecki/Metro

Massachusetts residents and lawmakers are awaiting specifics after Gov. Deval Patrick announced that the state will open its arms to as many as 1,000 unaccompanied children who are fleeing violence in Central America.

Patrick said Friday he has offered to house the immigrant kids in Massachusetts, who are between the ages of 3 and 17, in a temporary shelter at either the Joint Base Cape Cod in Bourne or Westover Air Base in Chicopee as they await immigration processing.

It's not clear when the children will arrive, or where they will ultimately end up, but while they are in Massachusetts they will be be provided with food, a bed, medical screening and education paid for by the federal government.

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The children are fleeing the threat of rape, murder and gang violence as well as poor economic conditions in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, according to Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, the state’s largest organization representing the foreign born.

"Death is a certain possibility for them," Millona said. "All we are doing is opening the facility that will house them and offering necessary, basic needs."

The Obama Administration has sought help from states in response to the overwhelming arrival of illegal immigrant children in the U.S.

Since last fall, more than 50,000 children between the ages of 3 and 17 have taken perilous journeys from Central American countries to cross the U.S.-Mexico border since the fall.

The federal government has asked that the minors be house for an expected period of up to four months.

A pro-immigration group gathered on the front steps of Lynn City Hall Tuesday. PHOTO BY NICOLAUS CZARNECKI/METRO A pro-immigration group gathered on the front steps of Lynn City Hall Tuesday.
PHOTO BY NICOLAUS CZARNECKI/METRO

It's not the first time the state has offered shelter in the face of a humanitarian crisis.

Hundreds of Gulf Coast residents who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina received relief in Massachusetts, as did survivors of the 2010 Haitian earthquake.

Regardless, not all are convinced that the governor's decision is the right one.

House Minority Leader Brad Jones said House members and constituents have expressed concern over unanswered questions about the cost, duration of stay, effect on local communities and the long-term ramifications of sheltering the minors.

"There is a certain level of apprehension about what the federal government says and what is actually going to happen," said Jones. "These questions are reasonable. They are not meant to be hurtful, but they are legitimate questions."

Despite the state's history of helping outsiders in desperate situations, Millona said resistance in this instance is likely due to nationwide debate over border control.

"It's very emotional to many, and I think the fact that it's happening at a time when immigration reform is the issue of the day is one of the key points of the opposition," she said.

But Jones believes that sheltering the minors will not address the problem at hand - inconceivable violence in Central America.

"If they are leaving because of violence, and the violence doesn't stop, it will push even more to come," said Jones. "Unlike a natural disaster, which has a beginning, a middle and an end, nothing seems to show there is going to be an end to this."

Follow Morgan Rousseau on Twitter: @MetroMorgan
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