NORWALK, Conn. – The humanitarian crisis involving thousands of children from Central America, unaccompanied by parents or guardians, streaming across the nation’s southern border has reached Connecticut.
More than 57,000 unaccompanied children have come into the U.S. since October from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, according to a story in the New Haven Register. The federal government has been trying to find facilities across the nation to house and care for the children while their situations are sorted out, the story said.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy last week rejected a request from Washington for Connecticut to take 2,000 of the children and house them in the Southbury Training School, which the governor said was deteriorating.
Connecticut was the lone New England state to say no.
The children have come across the border illegally, Mayor Harry Rilling said Friday night. “Yes, they are undocumented, but this is very different. These are young people, victims of exploitation and human trafficking.”
Rilling was part of a group of a dozen Connecticut mayors who took part in a Friday morning conference call organized by New Haven Mayor Toni Harp and Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch. The group discussed ways to handle the influx of unaccompanied, undocumented children who, Rilling said, need to be cared for until their situations are resolved.
“Everybody is trying to figure out how do we deal with this? … I said, ‘Wait, we don’t want to put all these people in one place,” Rilling said. “I said, ‘Why don’t we each dedicate one staff person from each of our staffs and develop a process that we can live with?’”
Rilling said he has tabbed Norwalk Human Relations Director Adam Bovilsky as his representative to the group.
“We cannot afford as individual cities to find” city-sponsored housing, health care, nutrition, education, recreation, supervision – “this kind of process,” Rilling said. “We need to work with not-for-profits and faith-based groups” who are better able to handle that.
“The ideal situation is to reunite them with any family members or with foster homes,” he said.
“We don’t have the resources to put them in one huge place,” he said. “The only huge place would be a jail. That would be last thing you’d want to do.”
Rilling said he had spoken with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who told him there are about 325 of the children in Connecticut, and about 4.5 percent are in Norwalk.
“That is 14 to 15 young people in this city who need assistance,” he said. “We don’t know who they are, where they are.”
Rilling said many of the children may be staying with undocumented relatives or others who are likely reluctant to come forward to government officials in search of help.
“It’s a process not easily resolved, but we’re going to make sure we take care of the children until we figure out what is going to happen,” he said.
“Local municipalities do not get involved in immigration issues,” the former police chief said. “The only time police get involved is when there is an undocumented person who has committed a serious crime. Our job is to take care of people in our communities and try to accommodate what they need – within reason, obviously. We need to attend to the needs of the children until we determine what their ultimate status is going to be.”
Rilling emphasized that these are not criminals or people coming to this country in search of jobs.
“We are talking children who have become victims of human trafficking,” he said. “They fall into different situations that are not good for them. This is a humanitarian effort. The immediate issue right now is to identify who they are, find out what their needs are, and take care of them until we can find out what the final resolution is going to be.”
Common Councilwoman Eloisa Melendez (D-District A) praised the mayor for joining the statewide group of city leaders to help find a solution to the problem.
“I would like to commend Mayor Rilling and the other mayors who joined him on the phone today, for taking steps to find solutions to help address what is indeed a humanitarian crisis at our border,” she said. “I’m thankful that our mayor was able to represent our great, diverse city today and am hopeful that we, as a city, will be able to help our nation in this crisis.”