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Details sought on alien children

Housing is focus of Hester’s letter

By Sean Beherec

This article was published August 2, 2014 at 3:31 a.m.

Republican state Sen. Bart Hester on Friday sent a letter to Gov. Mike Beebe asking for more information about the federal government's plans to house unaccompanied children in the state who are caught after entering the country illegally.

The governor's office said 166 children have been assigned to sponsors in the state, but there have been no discussions about large-scale facilities to house the children.

Hester wrote that the "situation at our southern border" is a security, humanitarian and health crisis for the alien children and the states that receive them.

"The stories of what these children have to endure are truly horrifying, and we hope the federal government will take immediate and decisive action to secure our border and put an end to this crisis," Hester wrote.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers have picked up about 57,000 unaccompanied children crossing the border since October. The majority of those children come from El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras.

The children are taken to shelters until they can be assigned sponsors -- usually parents or family members living in the country -- who take care of the them while their immigration status is evaluated, according to the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. Of the 30,340 children assigned sponsors across the country between the beginning of the year and July 7, 166 have been placed with sponsors in Arkansas, according to the office.

Hester said in an interview that he felt like the state had a responsibility to take care of the children already in the state until they are reunited with their families, but he was concerned about that number growing. He said he wanted the state to be "proactive and preparing."

The Cave Springs Republican said he sent the letter because he wanted to start a discussion about the issue of unaccompanied children and what the state should be doing to prepare for a possible increase in the number of children held here. He said he planned to schedule legislative committee meetings to discuss the issue in "a few weeks."

"I think this is exactly what I wanted. I wanted to bring attention to this issue. I feel like it's a crisis on the national level," Hester said.

Matt DeCample, a spokesman for the governor, said nothing has changed since the federal government reported the number of children placed with sponsors in July. He said it was "primarily a federal issue" and that there were no decisions currently for the state to make.

"We have not heard any discussion in Arkansas about using any facilities for any larger-scale, nonindividual placements ... and that continues to be the case," DeCample said.

Amy Webb, a spokesman for the Department of Human Services, said the process of placing children with sponsors and their medical screenings and vaccinations are handled by the federal government. The state has not been asked to provide any care for unaccompanied children who are brought here, she said.

"They are not asking the states to provide any shelter, services or anything," Webb said.

Metro on 08/02/2014

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