Faced With Undocumented Minors, Iowa Is Wrenched By Stark Divide

Jul 23, 2014
Originally published on July 23, 2014 7:36 pm

Although the governor of Iowa says that unaccompanied minors from Central America should not find shelter in his state, more than 100 are already there. But the mayor of Des Moines, the state's largest city, and many religious leaders are at odds with the governor. They say Iowa should be welcoming and help children in need.

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We've reported on protesters in the Southwest who oppose the presence of undocumented children in their communities. But these children have been given shelter all over the country as they await court hearings. And now we're going to hear from Des Moines, Iowa. The presence of children there has also sparks debate. NPR's Cheryl Corley tells us more.

CHERYL CORELY, BYLINE: For a few weeks now, Iowa's governor Terry Branstad has made it plain where he stands when it comes to the undocumented minors from Central America.

GOVERNOR TERRY BRANDSTAD: Listen, I'm very empathetic for these teenagers and kids, but they've come here illegally, and it would be wrong for us to send a signal if you come here illegally, we're going to just disperse you throughout the country and you don't have to go home.

CORELY: Under a 2008 federal law, minors caught by the border patrol are handed over to the Department of Health and Human Services which coordinates their care and finds them safe housing until their cases are decided. In a statement, Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley says the Department of Health and Human Services informed his staff that since January, at least 139 of those unaccompanied children have been released to sponsors in Iowa.

At Des Moines's Trinity Las Americas United Methodist Church, hundreds fill the sanctuary during a rally this week. Bible verses in English and Spanish are posted on the sides of the pews. Connie Ryan Terrell, the executive director of the Interfaith Alliance says there are plenty in the city ready to take the undocumented minors in.

CONNIE RYAN TERRELL: Governor Terry Brandstad has made statements that these children from Central America are not welcome in Iowa. That simply is not true.

CORELY: The mayor of Des Moines Frank Cownie says the state has a history of providing shelter, particularly in the 1970s. That's when then Republican Governor Robert Ray initiated a private effort to find a home for thousands of so called Vietnamese boat people who fled their country after the Vietnam War.

MAYOR FRANK COWNIE: Iowans open up their arms. They open up their homes. They open up their churches. They open up their apartments. They did everything that they could do to help these people get educated and do what was necessary.

CORELY: And Cownie says Iowa needs to have that same kind of spirit in 2014. But current Governor Brandstad says there's a difference in what's happening now and what occurred more than 35 years ago.

BRANDSTAD: What Governor Ray did was legal, and they came as intact families, and they worked to resettle them permanently here. But they came from countries where they were being killed and where the difference is between coming here legally and illegally.

CORELY: Brandstad points to his previous term as governor when the state welcomed legal immigrants from Eastern Europe when the Berlin wall came down. However, advocates like Connie Ryan Terrell say Brandstad should reassess his situation and let Iowa play a role in resolving what many here consider a humanitarian crisis.

TERRELL: Yes, the situation is different, Governor. But we are not. Governor Branstad, let the children come.


CORELY: However, Senator Grassley says he'll cosponsor legislation that would require the federal government to notify the governor of any state 48 hours before placing any of the undocumented minors from Central America in facilities or with sponsors in that particular state. Cheryl Corley, NPR News.

CORNISH: Tomorrow, Cheryl will have more on this story from Davenport, Iowa. You can hear that on Morning Edition. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.