Maryland religious leaders issued a call for families to offer foster care to immigrant children from Central America as part of an effort to see that unaccompanied minors find shelter in homes rather than in barracks.
Faith leaders who met with Gov. Martin O'Malley at the State House on Monday said as many as 2,000 children are expected to join more than 2,200 who have already found homes in Maryland, often with relatives, since the beginning of the year. Maryland has already taken in more of the immigrant children than all but a handful of large states.
Aid officials expect that about 95 percent of the children yet to arrive in Maryland will eventually be placed with relatives. However, some may require foster care while family members are located, and a smaller number may need longer-term shelter.
Dozens of religious leaders and others released a joint statement Monday urging Marylanders to help.
"While it may be possible to house many children in large shelters, this is clearly not the ideal setting for caring for children through their teenage years. Instead, the most urgent need right now is for foster homes to care for a child or two while they [await] their legal processing or reuniting with their families," the faith leaders wrote.
Bishop Wolfgang D. Herz-Lane of the Delaware-Maryland Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church said the Christian, Jewish, Muslim and other religious leaders who met with the governor were united in their determination to care for children who in many cases have traveled thousands of miles by themselves to escape violence in their homes countries.
"These are innocent children. These are not hardened criminals who are fleeing from the law in their own countries," Herz-Lane said.
The Obama administration has considered and rejected at least two potential sites in Maryland for shelters to house hundreds of children, but will not comment on additional sites that might be under scrutiny.
Ted Dallas, state secretary of human resources, said he doesn't know whether federal officials are considering other sites for shelters in Maryland.
"It's possible there are sites they are looking at I don't know about," he said.
Dallas said the federal government will cover the costs of foster care or shelters for the children, but officials did not have an estimate of costs to the state of dealing with the influx. The young immigrants crossing the borders without permission are not eligible for such government benefits as food stamps or medical assistance, but would be expected to attend school and from time to time show up in emergency rooms.
The O'Malley administration has stepped up its efforts to identify people and organizations willing to help immigrant children who show up in Maryland. It posted a notice on the state government website, md.gov, asking for people willing to provide a variety of services and offering information on such topics as foster care. Among other things, the site is seeking lawyers willing to work pro bono with children facing immigration proceedings to determine their fate.
Some of the children are applying for a status that allows them to stay in the U.S. if they can demonstrate they have been abused, neglected or abandoned in their native country.
The immigration issue has found its way into the governor's race as Republican nominee Larry Hogan said Monday he opposes O'Malley's efforts to promote foster homes and even small group homes to shelter the children. Spokesman Adam Dubitsky said Hogan feels families should be reunited in their home countries as quickly and as safely as possible.
"These kids have already been through enough," he said.
In contrast, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, the Democratic standard bearer, supported the state's efforts to find homes for them.
"While the federal government should ensure the physical safety of these children, identify their parents, and return them whenever possible, Maryland should do our part by temporarily moving a small number of these children into our foster care and social services system," he said in a statement issued by his campaign.
Brown added that Congress should fully reimburse state and local governments for their costs.
O'Malley's meeting with the faith leaders was his second in as many weeks on the border crisis, which has brought an estimated 60,000 unaccompanied minors to the United States since last October. The governor has staked out a position in favor of welcoming the children as refugees rather than treating them as illegal economic immigrants.
Administration officials did not offer many specifics about the meeting.