The nation's governors appeared united that Washington needs to act to deal with the surge of unaccompanied minors crossing the southern border illegally at a gathering of state chief executives over the weekend, but showed little consensus over what Washington should actually do to mitigate the situation.
The border crisis was front-and-center at the National Governors Association (NGA) meeting in Nashville, where Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell briefed governors on the situation Sunday morning, especially for those governors from states that have been asked to house the children in temporary shelters.
Throughout the weekend the governors expressed frustration over a lack of communication from Washington, worried about both the humanitarian situation and the potential costs to their states.
"It almost brings me to tears thinking about these children," said Wisconsin's Republican Governor Scott Walker. "You think of the trauma these kids are going through to get here, and you think of the trauma before that. I put them on my own personal prayer list."
Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, said Friday, "I can only imagine, as a father of four, the heartbreak that those parents must have felt in sending their children across a desert where they can be muled and trafficked or used or killed or tortured."
Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, a Republican, raised public-health and security concerns, asking about the risk to American citizens, saying there have been cases of chicken pox, scabies and lice at Fort Sill, the army post where over 1,100 unaccompanied minors are being housed in her state.
Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval, a Republican, praised Burwell after the closed-press meeting. "We don’t know what the cost to the states are going to be," he said. "The bottom line for me was for there to be an open line of communication with the secretary on that issue. And she’s assured me and all the governors that she will ensure that we’re very well aware of what is going on with respect to states."
Multiple governors described the meeting as "frank," with Burwell challenged on the Administration's handling of the issue. Sandoval said it was too early to say whether governors are buying in to the Administration's proposed response.
But the evidence on display elsewhere at the NGA meeting suggested the governors are as deeply divided over the solution as policymakers in the nation’s capital. “I think Congress needs to act, and I think the President needs to go down there and see it for himself like I did,” Fallon said.
“Go down there,” echoed Utah Governor Gary Herbert, also a Republican. “Grab both sides of the issue and say we will solve this. We need to me more leadership out of the White House and we need to see more collaboration in Congress.”
The number of unaccompanied child migrants attempting to cross the border has surged in recent months, mainly from Central America. U.S. Customs and Border Protection says the number detained has risen by 92% from July last year. Last week, President Barack Obama requested $3.7 billion to ease the humanitarian crisis and increase border security, as the federal government is looking to move thousands of unaccompanied minors to temporary detention facilities in states away from the border.
On Sunday, Texas Governor Rick Perry, who was not at the governors' conference, said he does not support the President's request. “As I look at that piece of legislation, it is a very large amount of money, and as you analyze it, very little of it is for border security,” the Republican said on Fox News Sunday.
Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, who famously clashed with Obama at the Phoenix airport over immigration policy in 2012, said the children must be sent back. “They should be sent home,” she said. “They are illegal. We have borders for a reason. And I’ll say it again, you know, a country without borders is like a house without walls — it collapses. We are a nation of laws. We believe in the rule of law.”
"People — our citizens already feel burdened by all kinds of challenges," said Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat. "They don’t want to see another burden coming into their state. So however we deal with the humanitarian aspects of this, we’ve got to do it in the most cost-effective way possible.”
Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy called on the federal government to do more to solve the instability in Central America that is causing the influx of migrant children. But the Democrat emphasized the importance of increasing border security, saying that Washington must act “in the most human way possible, but respecting our laws."
“There’s a paucity of suggestions on how to deal with this from Republicans, other than to point fingers,” he added.
O’Malley, who is preparing to run for President in 2016, broke publicly with Obama on Saturday, saying the children should be allowed to stay.
“It is contrary to everything we stand for to try to summarily send children back to death,” the Democratic lawmaker told reporters. He also criticized the “kennels” in which those who have been detained are being kept and called for the children to be placed in “the least restrictive” locations, including foster homes or with family members in the U.S.
Walker, who is similarly mulling a presidential bid on the GOP side, said the federal government needs to be careful where it releases the children. "If they go with people without legal status, our concern is that these children will just suddenly be gone and we’re not going to see them and that’ll just encourage more kids to come," he said.