By Colleen Quinn
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE — Immigrants demanding answers about state plans to help children who have illegally crossed over the U.S. border shouted at policymakers and the mayor of Lynn Thursday during an impromptu protest at the State House, where federal and state officials had met to discuss how to handle the thousands of children arriving in the country without adults.
After the meeting had been underway for two hours, a group of 50 to 60 of immigrants pushed their way into House Minority Leader Bradley Jones’ office demanding to be heard, screaming at Republican staffers. Security was called to move the crowd back into the hallway.
“We are here to demand to be part of the conversation,” said Patricia Montes, from the group Centro Presente. “When you talk about illegals you are talking about us. We are human beings.”
The group objected to the closed door meeting. Republican lawmakers and Patrick administration officials met with James Brown, the acting deputy field office director of the U.S. Department of Human Services/ Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO). After the meeting, Jones described it as a “thoughtful discussion.”
State Health and Human Services Secretary John Polanowicz and Secretary of Public Safety Andrea Cabral sat in on the meeting, as well as Lynn Mayor Judith Flanagan Kennedy and Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson. Rep. John Fernandes (D-Milford) was the only Democratic lawmaker in the meeting.
Thousands of children trying to escape their own countries have found their way over the border. Last week, the Obama administration asked governors around the country to consider temporarily hosting the children. Gov. Deval Patrick offered to up take up to 1,000 children for four months, housing them at either the Joint Base Cape Cod in Bourne or Westover Air Base in Chicopee.
The Obama administration estimates it will pick up nearly 60,000 children from the U.S.-Mexico border by September. President Barack Obama last month called it an “urgent humanitarian situation,” according to the Washington Post.
Leaving the meeting, the Lynn mayor got into a shouting match with protestors.
>>> For video of Kennedy’s encounter with protesters, go to: http://www.statehousenews.com/video/14-07-24immigrants/
For video of the press conference with Jones, Cabral and Polanowicz, go to: http://www.statehousenews.com/video/14-07-24immigrants_presser/ <<<
“I am trying to let you know that the immigrant community wants to have a conversation about this topic. But you guys are having a meeting in closed doors,” Montes said. “You see that family here. They are not criminals. You are talking about them.”
Flanagan Kennedy shot back, “Wait a minute, wait a minute . . . tell me when I ever accused them of being criminals.”
“Why do you bring a loaded word into this conversation?” Flanagan Kennedy added.
An outraged Flanagan Kennedy challenged the protestors to give her one example where she has ever described immigrants in Lynn as criminals. She said if they wanted a conversation, she would set up a date.
Protestors said they were concerned that some who attended the meeting want to see the children sent back.
“And you tell me, you tell me, please tell me once that I have ever suggested that any of these people get sent back that are currently in my city. Anybody give me that?” Flanagan Kennedy said.
Flanagan Kennedy said Lynn city services, from the school department to health care are stressed from an influx of illegal children immigrants. She said the population of foreign-born students doubled in the past two years. This year there were 600 new students, with 248 children from Guatemala. Of those 126 were illegal minors, according to Flanagan Kennedy.
“I am simply asking for help because I defy anybody to find a community in Massachusetts that has experienced such exponential growth in their school system with no money accompanying the extra children we have taken on. No money to get buildings leased or extra textbooks ordered or more social services. And it’s all fallen on to us,” Flanagan Kennedy said after the meeting.
Hodgson told reporters that if the federal government did not send a clear message that the children will be sent back to their countries of origin, they will keep coming.
Hodgson said he just returned from a visit to the U.S.-Mexico border.
“What’s happening is until we turn them back, parents are going to be paying $5,000 to $7,000 to these coyotes,” Hodgson said, referring to people paid to bring people into the country illegally. “Mothers are giving their children birth control pills, the girls, because they believe they are going to get raped along the way, which many of them are. We have kids being mutilated along the journey. And ultimately they are coming here, and when they get to the border they are being told if they want to try to sneak in, rather than turn themselves into border patrol, that they have to pay some other crime people.”
“What we need to do is send a clear message, if you come here we are going to send you right back,” he added. “Then the mom or dad or whomever is paying will say ‘I am not going to pay $5,000 to $7,000 to send this child along, have them be abused, and find out when they get there they are just going to get turned back.”
The public believes that the children will be sent somewhere outside of Massachusetts after 120 days, but immigration case backlogs will keep them here for years, Hodgson said.
“The suggestion is they are going to sort of foster them out into our communities in Massachusetts and anywhere else where they think they might have relatives,” Hodgson said.
After the meeting, Polanowicz said 80 percent of the children will likely be sent to live with a family member in Massachusetts or somewhere else in the country while they await an immigration hearing. The others could be sent to 94 different federal foster facilities across the nation. Massachusetts has 20 federal foster placements available.
Hodgson said everyone is concerned about the children, but accused the Patrick administration of not understanding the depth of the problem and how it could strain social services. Hodgson said it appears the administration does not have all the facts from the federal government.
“And before we move on something that is going to have wide-ranging impacts on the people of Massachusetts, we need to understand the problem. We need to understand the fallout and the impact it is going to have on these individuals,” Hodgson said.
Twenty-one lawmakers sent a letter to Patrick Tuesday writing they support the idea of bringing the children to Massachusetts and calling the governor’s proposal “a tangible gesture of humanitarianism and compassion in keeping with our Commonwealth’s rich history of protecting all members of our society.”
Senators and state representatives who signed the letter include: Rep. Thomas Conroy (D-Wayland); Rep. Thomas Sannicandro (D-Ashland); Rep. Denise Provost (D-Somerville); Rep. Ruth Balser (D-Newton); Rep. Jeffrey Roy (D-Franklin); Rep. Sarah Peake (D-Provincetown); Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez (D-Boston); Rep. John Scibak (D-South Hadley); Rep. Daniel Ryan (D-Charlestown); Rep. Frank Smizik (D-Brookline); Rep. David Rogers (D-Cambridge); Rep. Mary Keefe (D-Worcester); Rep. Gloria Fox (D-Boston); Rep. Alan Silvia (D-Fall River) and Sen. Kenneth Donnelly (D-Arlington); Sen. Daniel Wolf (D-Harwich).
Michael Deehan contributed reporting.