By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
LINCOLN, Neb. – Undeterred by his critics, Gov. Dave Heineman continues to press for answers from federal officials about the 214 unaccompanied immigrant children placed in Nebraska since October.
They are part of a flood of Central American children that have streamed across the nation’s southern border in recent years, overwhelming Texas facilities and the federal government. More than 57,000 children have illegally crossed the border since October — double the prior year and on course to triple.
Heineman wasn’t told of the kids’ placement with relatives and sponsors and has pressed federal officials for information on the children’s identity and whereabouts. On Wednesday, the governor told KTIC Radio he still hasn’t gotten the information requested earlier this month.
He was recently on a conference call with governors and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Mathews Burwell, and “they made it very clear that they’re not going to give us the information.” He also confirmed the feds aren’t checking the immigration status of the children’s sponsors or relatives, “so they could in fact be going to families who are already here illegally.”
U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns has echoed that concern, saying he doubts the verification process is stringent enough to ensure the children are placed with people who are in the U.S. legally.
“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 said earlier this month. “This child just disappears into American society.”
The governor said Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson made it clear Tuesday the children aren’t refugees, but “unaccompanied alien children” who crossed the border illegally — although a few may qualify for refugee status.
Heineman said he sent another letter to Burwell asking HHS to clarify how many of the children have been sent to Nebraska during the current federal fiscal year. He expects the number is still around 214, but noted Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad only recently learned through the media that 139 children had been placed in his state.
“He said that about a week ago and then he’s finding out just like we did, oh no, they’ve sent about 100 over there,” Heineman said on the radio show.
Since going public with his outrage over federal officials’ refusal to provide him specifics, Heineman has been criticized for not being compassionate toward the kids, many of whom are fleeing violent, poverty-stricken countries.
On Monday, 13 Nebraska organizations urged policymakers to treat the children with compassion and humanity.
“As the rest of the world looks to us as an example, the first priority for our policymakers must be to ensure the safety of these children,” Francys Chavez of Unity In Action, a South Sioux City-based community organization, said in a news release. “Many of them have fled a dangerous situation and survived a perilous journey to seek the chance to grow up in a safe community. Congress and our leaders must act responsibly to guarantee them a fair process that we give others who are eligible for humanitarian protection.”
The 13 groups include the ACLU of Nebraska, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Omaha, Center for People in Need, Latino American Commission, Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska and Nebraska Appleseed.
But the governor didn’t back down from his previous demands for more information.
“We have a responsibility here and we need to know the names of the individuals so that we can make sure that when their hearing occurs, they should be there,” he said.
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