By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
LINCOLN, Neb. – Gov. Dave Heineman blasted federal officials Friday for refusing to give him details about 200 undocumented children who have been placed in Nebraska as the feds grapple with a crush of Central American kids sneaking across the nation’s southern border.
Nebraska Watchdog first reported on the children after U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns confirmed their placement on Thursday. U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials told Johanns on June 27 that the children were placed with families or sponsors in Nebraska after being caught or turning themselves into the U.S. Border Patrol.
The children are part of a wave of Central American children who have crossed the Mexico-America border and overwhelmed Texas facilities. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services by law must find a place for the children while they await deportation hearings, and if they have family in the U.S., that’s where they go.
About 52,000 unaccompanied children have been caught at the border since October, double the number from the prior year.
The governor said he had “no idea what was going on” until the past 24 to 48 hours, although he said, “We had some suspicion.” He said it was outrageous that federal officials are declining to give him information about the kids’ whereabouts.
“I’m just very, very concerned and I can’t believe in America we have a government who is essentially secretly transporting (them) to Nebraska and we can’t know who they are,” he said. “The federal government should be very transparent about what’s occurring.”
Heineman — who got elected a decade ago in part based on his tough stance on illegal immigration — said he called federal Homeland Security and talked to a key Health and Human Services policy advisor in person about the issue Friday. He confirmed that about 200 kids have been placed in Nebraska and he expects more will come, but federal officials declined to tell him how the kids were transported, who they are or who they’re staying with. He said the children will be treated humanely while they’re here, but he’s entitled to some information about them.
“They’re not wiling to tell the governor of Nebraska or any mayor of our state where they’ve transported these individuals and that is not right, that is not fair,” Heineman said on the Chris Baker Show on KFAB radio. The governor’s office alerted the media that he would address the issue on the show in one interview, since he is in Nashville attending a National Governors Association meeting and unable to do multiple interviews.
Heineman said he’s working with the congressional delegation on a letter demanding that the feds turn over the names of the children. He was assured the children undergo health screenings and vaccinations before being handed over to HHS. Heineman said “taxpayer dollars from legal citizens” could end up paying for their education and benefits.
Vice President Joe Biden was shaking hands with all the governors at the NGA meeting Friday, and Heineman took that chance to ask him about the undocumented children.
“He said he’d check into it,” Heineman said. “So we’re going to remind him next week, too.”
President Obama is seeking more than $3.7 billion in emergency funds to speed up processing of the migrants. Republicans have blamed Obama for sparking the crisis when he started a program last year to avoid speedy deportation for some who came to the U.S. illegally when they were children.
Others say the crisis also stems from 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 by HHS in the least restrictive setting possible.
While the governor said he doesn’t know where the children have been placed,
Grand Island Superintendent Robert Winter told Nebraska Watchdog Wednesday he expects about 50 to 60 children will be enrolling in the school system. He said the school system got about 50 children last year, too.
A spokesman for the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, Kenneth Wolfe, declined Thursday to comment on the 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.”
Heineman said he didn’t know whether any of those shelters existed in Nebraska, but indicated he doesn’t think the 200 children went into such shelters.
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