JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi has received fewer than 200 of the unaccompanied immigrant children who crossed the U.S. border and were released to sponsors so far this year, but the war of words over such children continues within the state.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families released data Thursday showing that sponsors in Mississippi received 179 of more than 30,000 such children nationwide from January 1 to July 7.
California, Florida, New York and Texas received the most children in the past half year, accounting for 46 percent of the children released to sponsors.
Gov. Phil Bryant, a longtime opponent of illegal immigration, said it was "troubling" that the federal government was sending children to Mississippi without consulting him, calling the moves "covert immigration practices conducted by an overreaching federal government."
Bryant, a Republican, wrote to President Barack Obama on Friday demanding that Obama pre-announce plans to send immigrants to Mississippi and saying Mississippi would block transports.
"To the extent permitted by law, I intend to prohibit the federal government or its agents from housing large numbers of new illegal immigrants in the state of Mississippi," Bryant wrote in the July 18 letter. "Illegal immigration imposes real and substantial costs on the states, and it is unfair to expect the states to bear the costs of a problem created by the federal government's failure to enforce the law."
Bryant, who accused Obama of having "lax immigration policies and flagrant disregard for federal immigration law" noted a 2012 executive order he signed that's meant to bar immigrants living in Mississippi illegally from receiving public benefits. On Thursday, he threatened immediate action against any official who violates that order by giving food stamps, non-emergency medical benefits or welfare payments to the children.
The Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance held a news conference Thursday to decry Bryant's letter, saying Mississippi should welcome children in need and afford them a chance to go through deportation hearings under federal law.
"We're very concerned about the xenophobia in the letter that was put out by the governor," said alliance Executive Director Bill Chandler.
Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., sent his own letter to Obama criticizing Bryant's stance.
"We have a moral obligation as Americans and as decent human beings to do the right by the kids that have, against the odds, reached our border," Thompson wrote. "Many Mississippians agree on this — you can count me among them."
About 57,000 minors, mostly from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, crossed into the U.S. since October, a surge of arrivals stemming from violence in those countries as well as a belief they'll be allowed to stay in the U.S.
Children are placed in shelters, then released to sponsors while going through deportation proceedings. Sponsors are often parents, other relatives, or a family friend. Sponsors are checked for criminal history, but don't have to be in the country legally. Officials make sure children are vaccinated and don't have contagious diseases before being released.
Mississippi has no shelters. Greg Patin, executive director of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Jackson, said the group had considered offering a former school in Yazoo City as a shelter, but has not moved ahead. He said a lack of Spanish-speaking social workers in the state would make it hard for any shelter to operate over the long term.