TAMPA — A couple dozen of the thousands of undocumented children and teenagers from Central America who have crossed into the United States in recent months might soon be housed in Hillsborough County.
So far, no one is saying exactly how many or when they will arrive.
In the past 11 months, an estimated 63,000 undocumented minors have entered the United States over the Mexico border, and the federal government is looking for places to house them until they can be placed with relatives or sponsors.
This week, a federal official confirmed in a one-line email that unaccompanied immigrant children may be temporarily housed in Hillsborough County at The Children’s Home, a 122-year-old charity that through the years has cared for orphaned and foster children and kids who are victims of abuse and neglect.
“That organization has been approved for funding under the Unaccompanied Alien Children program,” said Kenneth Wolfe, deputy director of public affairs with the Administration for Children and Families, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in Washington.
Wolfe declined further comment.
Officials with The Children’s Home, which helps some 15,000 kids and adults a year, also stood silent on the issue this week, declining requests for interviews. CEO Irene Rickus referred all questions to Wolfe. Messages left with two Children’s Home directors resulted in polite referrals of all questions to Wolfe.
The Children’s Home runs two residential shelters for fostered and orphaned children and offers outreach programs in family support, matching foster care children with homes and help for abused and neglected children.
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U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, said she was notified by Health and Human Services that 27 children will be housed in Hillsborough County, although she doesn’t know when, or whether they already are here.
“We can’t talk about locations,” she said, citing the children’s safety.
“They’re children,” she said. “They’re young unaccompanied minors.”
The issue of minors from Central America making the trek to the United States, most of them from Guatemala and Honduras, has gotten a lot of attention in recent months.
Castor said Florida already is home to an unusually large number of refugees and asylum seekers of all ages.
“We have dedicated nonprofits ... who do an excellent job of resettling refugees from across the globe,” she said. “People from Cuba and Iraq, people who are running from torture, running for their lives.”
The Children’s Board of Hillsborough County, which acts as a clearinghouse for grants and funding for children’s programs, was unaware of any federal funding being approved for The Children’s Home, but the board is getting ready to help in case immigrant children are brought to the county, said Joanna Cheshire, spokeswoman for the Children’s Board.
She said two meetings have been held involving Children’s Board Executive Director Kelley Parris, the state Department of Children & Families and federal immigration officials, judges and charities. The goal was to develop plans to accommodate children who may be shipped here without disrupting services for local kids.
“They are still in the formative stages,” Cheshire said of the plans.
Initially, the federal government opened three temporary shelters on three military bases in the Southwest to house the youths as they streamed across the border. The government has closed those shelters, opting to place the children in community shelters across the nation or release them to sponsors while they await immigration proceedings.
The number of undocumented children crossing the border is unprecedented, according to the federal Division of Children’s Services, which provides care and placement for minors who immigrate to the United States without an adult guardian.
“On average, between 7,000 and 8,000 children are served annually in this program,” states the division’s website. But that number has swelled over the past three years to more than 60,000.
The children come primarily from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Most are 14 or older, and approximately three-quarters of them are boys. The average stay in the program is 35 days, federal officials say. Eight of every 10 served eventually are placed with relatives.
“We were able to take this step because we have pro-actively expanded capacity to care for children in standard shelters, which are significantly less costly facilities,” states the federal Administration for Children and Families’ website.
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The shelters are in communities across the nation, and in some cases the placement of the immigrant children has raised controversy.
In Pasco County this summer, a plan to expand a youth shelter operated by Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services to accommodate immigrant children from Central America has been met with stiff resistance from some residents.
The nonprofit social services agency won a federal grant this year to provide temporary housing for unaccompanied immigrant boys ages 8 to 17. The agency is asking to double the 16-bed capacity of its shelter in Holiday, but the request before the county’s planning commission has been delayed until October.
Those against the expansion characterized the youths as criminals and gang members, though federal officials discount that claim.
“Many of these children are fleeing violent situations in their home country and choose to leave rather than join a gang,” the Administration for Children and Families’ website states. “They endure a long and dangerous journey to reach the border. When they are placed in a standard shelter, they are, as a rule, relieved to be in a safe and caring environment where they can wait for a sponsor to arrive to take custody.”