Sen. Durbin says border kids not a danger to Illinois citizens

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After touring a shelter in the Chicago area that houses children from a recent rush of unaccompanied minors to the U.S. border, Sen. Dick Durbin on Monday said he wanted to make it clear the youths are not a danger to Illinois citizens.

“My friends, you would want to adopt these children if you spent five minutes in the room with them,” Durbin said at a news conference at Loyola University Chicago in Rogers Park. “They are lovely, beautiful little kids.”

His remarks come after Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and some other GOP lawmakers alleged that some of the children may be gang-affiliated or at risk of being recruited by gangs.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services called the allegations “rumors” and said in a statement on its website, “Many of these children are fleeing violent situations in their home country and choose to leave rather than join a gang.”

The shelters are run by the nonprofit Heartland Alliance, which has a contract with the HHS to care for the children. The location of Heartland’s nine facilities, which house about 429 kids, are undisclosed for security reasons. About 319 children are in foster care in Illinois, said Ashley Huebner, an attorney for the National Immigrant Justice Center.

As for safeguards, HHS said children do not leave the temporary shelters until they have a sponsor, (who could be a family member) who usually does not live near the shelter.

Last Thursday, Kirk also raised a question about criminal background checks.

According to Durbin’s office, youths 14 and older have their “biographic and biometric information, including fingerprints” recorded and submitted for background checks. . . . An unaccompanied child with a criminal background is placed in a secure facility to prevent escape.”

On Monday, Durbin said he spoke with a teenage mother who held her baby, which she had after being raped, for eight days on a bus to get to the border.

“I want to disabuse anyone of the notion that these are gangs coming into the United States,” Durbin said Monday. These are children escaping gangs.”

“Out of the 50,000 who have presented themselves so far this year, fewer than 200 are being held in a secure situation,” said Durbin, who noted that the kids could have been placed there because of normal disciplinary problems.

RELATED: House GOP to recommend sending National Guard to border

Durbin said he visited about 70 children at a facility in “a quiet neighborhood where families are raising their children without incident.” He said the facility had been in operation for 19 years and had cared for 6,000 kids.

“It is clean to my mother’s level of requirement,” Durbin said. There are few luxuries but “these are kids who are happy to finally be in a safe place — maybe for the first time in their lives to be children.”

Most of the children are placed in foster care or the care of a family member within weeks as immigration courts process cases to decide whether the child should be allowed to stay.

Durbin said there is no legal right for the children to stay in the United States under immigration laws, “but when it comes to the refugee question, yes.” The children could qualify for asylum as refugees, he said. “Other countries in other parts of the world deal with this on a regular basis.

The 50,000 or so minors who’ve entered the country this year are mainly from “lawless” parts of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

“To think that girls in these countries are given birth control before they start the journey with the expectation that they may be assaulted or raped shows the desperation of the families and children as they make it to the United States,” Durbin said.

Asked whether the children should be given such care while there are children on the streets of Chicago who do not have such basic needs met, Durbin said it was a “false choice . . . lets not face this and say, ‘We have to throw these children overboard to help these children.’ ”

Last week, Durbin participated in a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on President Barack Obama’s $3.7 billion emergency spending request to deal with the growing border crisis.

The U.S. has been dealing with children who come to this country without a parent for years. The spotlight on the program comes with the recent surge of youths crossing the border from Mexico to the Southwest states.

At present HHS, through its Office of Refugee Resettlement, operates about 100 short-term shelters across the county, including in Illinois. Heartland has been sheltering unaccompanied children since 1995.

According to federal records, the latest contract between Heartland and HHS, dated March 6, is for $12,745,602. Another Heartland contract, dated Dec. 4, 2013, is for $6,372,801 and also for shelter services.

Heartland has filled all its 429 bed slots and is overseeing an additional 319 children placed with family members. According to Durbin’s office, 90 percent of the children in Heartland care are recent arrivals in the U.S.

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