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Proposed AR Center to House Migrant Kids Draws Controversy

Border Patrol agents detain a group of unaccompanied Central American children shortly after they crossed the border into the United States. (vichinterland/iStockphoto)
Border Patrol agents detain a group of unaccompanied Central American children shortly after they crossed the border into the United States. (vichinterland/iStockphoto)
December 29, 2016

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. – Immigrant activists are criticizing members of the Arkansas congressional delegation for their opposition to converting a facility near Hot Springs into a shelter for immigrant children.

Federal officials recently inspected the abandoned Ouachita Job Corps Center site to assess its suitability as temporary housing for unaccompanied minors age 17 and younger. Terry Treviño-Richard, Arkansas state director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said the lawmakers are tapping into the current anti-immigrant political climate to spread unfounded fear.

"The idea of conflating that 'We don't know who these kids are, they could be violent, we don't know whether they're really terrorists or not' - this is absurd," Treviño-Richard said. "It is an absolute absurd rationale, which is repulsive."

A mid-December tour of the facility by U.S. Health and Human Services officials drew an immediate negative reaction from Sens. John Boozman and Tom Cotton, and Rep. Bruce Westerman - whose district includes the center. The lawmakers called the proposed use of the facility "irresponsible and against the wishes of Arkansans."

Treviño-Richard said there has been an increase in the number of kids coming to the U.S. from Central America, and that 95 percent of unaccompanied migrant children are from Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras, seeking to escape drug and gang violence.

“[They are] Kids who are trying to get away from levels of violence, potential death or forced recruitment into gangs,” he said. "They are coming here, literally, as a way of saving themselves."

He added that, despite the fears of the lawmakers and others, few of these kids would fit anyone's definition of a terrorist.

"And these are kids, these are children,” Treviño-Richard said. “LULAC - the League of United Latin American Citizens - is appalled at the rather knee-jerk reaction of our representatives."

A spokesman for the HHS said the agency has not yet determined whether the site is suitable to serve as a shelter, and gave no timeline for when a decision would be made.

Mark Richardson, Public News Service - AR