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200 undocumented children now in Nebraska

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Part 2 of 6 in the series Border children - Nebraska
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IMMIGRATION OVERLOAD: Immigrant advocates attend a vigil to show support for the refugee children and families arriving in the Rio Grande Valley at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen, Texas.

Updated 5:32 p.m. Thursday
By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog

LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska Republican U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns said Thursday about 200 undocumented children have been placed in Nebraska after arriving at the U.S. Border, most of them from Central America.

Johanns’ office said the U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials said during a June 27 conference call that a number of months ago, about 200 children were placed with families or sponsors in Nebraska, often after turning themselves into the U.S. Border Patrol and released under light supervision while awaiting deportation hearings. He said that number could be higher than 200, since it changes often.

The children placed in Nebraska are part of the wave of children from Central America who have been shuttled by coyotes to America’s border and overwhelmed Texas facilities. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is charged with finding a place for the children while they await court dates, and sometimes they go to relatives or sponsors in places like Nebraska.

“That is not a surprising number,” Johanns said. “These kids are probably getting scattered all over the United States.”

About 52,000 unaccompanied children have been caught at the U.S.-Mexico border since October, double the number from the prior year.

“This can’t be allowed to continue,” Johanns said. “The law needs to be changed here … or we have no border when it comes to anybody under age.”

Johanns said he doubts whether there’s a stringent verification process to ensure the children going to people who are in the U.S. legally, and then the kids are told to appear at future deportation hearings.

“Let’s be realistic. What are the chances that a child who is placed with somebody who is not here legally is going to be presented in court by that family a year from now?” Johanns asked. “This child just disappears into American society.”

President Obama is seeking more than $3.7 billion in emergency funds to speed up processing the migrants, but Johanns said “a bunch of money” isn’t going to solve the problem.

Republicans blame Obama for the crisis because he started a program that delayed deportation for some who came to the U.S. illegally when they were children. Johanns said when Obama said immigration laws wouldn’t be enforced for minors, he sent a signal that has been interpreted in Central America as a green light for minors, Johanns said.

“The tragedy of this is the coyotes are going to families throughout Central America and saying, ‘Pay me big money, give me your kids, I’ll get ‘em up to the border,’” Johanns said. “Nothing could be more dangerous.”

A source in Nebraska’s congressional delegation said there’s deep frustration that the Obama administration is not being forthcoming about the unaccompanied minors and where they’re going.

“This is serious,” Johanns said. “We’ve got a chaotic situation on our hands.”

However, some say the crush of children also dates back to a law passed in 2008, during George W. Bush’s administration, to protect Central American children from sex trafficking by preventing them from being sent packing without a hearing, advocate and attorney. While awaiting their court dates, the children must be placed in the least restrictive setting possible, and sometimes that means with relatives or acquaintances.

While Johanns didn’t take office until 2009, Nebraska Congressman Jeff Fortenberry was a big backer of the bill, but he told the New York Times many factors have contributed to the current crisis, including crushing poverty, not a 6-year-old law.

Nebraska Department of Health and Human Service officials said they were aware of the influx of children, but declined to comment because they aren’t eligible for state services.

The children apparently have been placed in the Omaha and Grand Island areas. Grand Island Superintendent Robert Winter said Wednesday he was aware some unaccompanied minors were being placed with relatives in the area. He estimated about 50 to 60 children will enroll in the school system.

“We’re aware that we may be getting some of those kids but we got some last year, so it’s not a new thing for Grand Island,” he said. “We don’t anticipate any problems.”

Grand Island has a large immigrant community, some of whom work in meat packing plants. It has a welcome center that for years has been working with children , Winter said.

“We will do what we need to do to accommodate them,” he said. “Like every school district, we have limited resources. It’s not a new phenomenon for us. We’ll make sure they have breakfast in the morning and a good day at school.”

Omaha Public Schools Spokesman Todd Andrews said, “We are able to accommodate all the students who come to our district. We will continue to do what it takes to meet the needs of our students.”

Omaha immigration lawyer Amy Peck said on radio station KOIL that the number of children arriving at the border has increased three-fold over last year, but many are trying to escape crime and violence.

If they don’t have a parent or guardian with them, they’re turned over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which has warehoused or jailed some children, she said.

A spokesman for the refugee office, Kenneth Wolfe, declined to comment on the number of undocumented minors placed in Nebraska, saying, “We do not identify the locations of regular/permanent shelters in the Unaccompanied Alien Children program for the safety and security of minors and staff at the facilities.”

According to information provided by Wolfe, the Office of Refugee Resettlement operates about 100 short-term shelters for unaccompanied minors who enter the U.S. illegally, most near the border with Mexico. It’s not clear whether there is such a shelter in Nebraska.

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Part of 6 in the series Border children - Nebraska

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Deena Winter has been a journalist for over 20 years, writing stories for the Northwood Gleaner, Bismarck Tribune, Associated Press, Denver Post and Lincoln Journal Star before joining Watchdog.