Gov. Bobby Jindal demanded further details from the White House Thursday about 1,071 unaccompanied immigrant children living with sponsors in Louisiana.
Jindal wants to know where the children are living, the timeline for determining their ultimate status and whether the federal government plans to kick in dollars for their education and health care. He also wants to know how the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services decided where to place them.
“It is unacceptable that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services considers posting information on a website as a legitimate notification mechanism of unaccompanied minors being placed in Louisiana. It is irresponsible to do so when the information is as critical as the placement of 1,071 vulnerable unaccompanied immigrant children in the state,” the governor wrote.
The federal government had no immediate response. “The governor will receive a reply to his letter as soon as possible,” said Kenneth J. Wolfe, deputy director of the Office of Public Affairs within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement added fuel to an already raging political firestorm when it released a breakdown last week on the distribution of unaccompanied immigrant children by state. The children are part of an illegal migration surge into the U.S. stemming from instability in Central America.
Part of the problem stems from the fact that the children are natives of Central America. Children from Mexico and Canada can swiftly be sent home under a 2008 law. It takes a little longer to deal with children from other countries. Often, they wind up living with family in the U.S. while their immigration cases are decided. A decision can take years.
Earlier this week, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant expressed concern about possible “secretive attempts to funnel the immigrants into states without consent.” Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker told his state’s reporters: “If we’re not having a rapid process to get back to the country of origin, they’re going to basically blend into whatever community and state and country they’re in. That’s going to have costs and drain the entire system.”
Jindal — the son of immigrants who came to the U.S. from India legally in the 1970s — has been a little quieter than other Republican governors. But he jumped in Thursday, demanding answers.
The governor isn’t alone in pressing for details. U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., has been asking for weeks about unaccompanied children who illegally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border.
State Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, said it’s shocking to learn more than 1,000 unaccompanied children are in Louisiana. She wants to know the children’s criminal backgrounds and health status.
“We are very concerned about the citizens of Louisiana, as well as the innocent children among gang members and criminals crossing our national border. The governor today has insisted the president supply us with vital information and reveal long-term plans,” Hodges said.
The possibility of the U.S. warehousing immigrant children in Louisiana already has created flashpoints in the debate. One blog report — later retracted — had C-17 planes loaded with illegal aliens on the tarmac in Belle Chasse.
Vitter fanned the flames by tweeting: “#BarksdaleAFB & Hirsch Coliseum were all asked to house illegal immigrants. #Louisiana should not be bullied into housing them.” A few days later, he asked supporters to contribute to his gubernatorial campaign so that he can “use all of our state’s power to block (illegal aliens) from coming to Louisiana in the future.”
Kathryn M. Blais, a spokeswoman for Barksdale Air Force Base in Bossier City, said the U.S. Defense Department inquired about the capacity for housing children at the base. “There are no plans to do so because of the strategic aircraft based here,” she said.
The State Fair of Louisiana owns and operates Hirsch Coliseum in Shreveport. Chris Giordano, president and general manager of the State Fair of Louisiana, said he got a phone call in early June from a trade association about the possibility of using fairgrounds’ facilities as temporary housing. No official request was ever made.
“It was one unofficial phone call from an unofficial entity,” Giordano said. “To this day, I haven’t had an official conversation with a government official.”
The erroneous blog report about an immigrant-laden plane in Belle Chasse riled state Rep. Jeff Arnold because the immigrants were supposedly bound for Federal City in the New Orleans area. Arnold, D-New Orleans, is chairman of the Algiers Development District, which owns the former military base. A Marine command base continues to operate at Federal City.
Still under development, Federal City contains a number of buildings that lack electricity and air conditioning. Arnold said the buildings would have to be checked for mold and other issues before people could be housed in them.
“If they try to put them in my facility, they’d better have a court order. We’re not taking them. We don’t have the room,” he said.
Follow Michelle Millhollon on Twitter @mmillhollon. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.