Democrats demand answers on immigrant children being held in Kansas
photo by: Peter Hancock
TOPEKA — Democrats in the Kansas Legislature on Friday said they want answers from Gov. Jeff Colyer and from a licensed youth residential center in Topeka about the condition of immigrant children being held in Kansas and about intentions for reuniting them with their parents.
Speaking at a Statehouse news conference, Democrats asserted that Colyer, a Republican, bears responsibility for ensuring that the children are being cared for and that there is a plan for returning them to their parents.
“We are here today to call upon Gov. Colyer to let the people know the status of these children and what the plan is to reunite these children with their families,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka. “It is deeply troubling to me that these children have been coming to this facility, The Villages, since April, and we have been given no specific information about them.”
The Villages is a nonprofit agency that is licensed as a youth residential center. It operates seven group home facilities in Topeka and Lawrence that house troubled children, mostly teenagers who are sent there from the Kansas Department of Corrections.
On Thursday, The Villages confirmed that it has been housing “unaccompanied minors” on behalf of the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Since April, an estimated 2,300 children have been separated from their parents and taken into custody after crossing into the United States illegally.
That was part of the “zero tolerance” policy on illegal immigration that President Donald Trump’s administration began implementing in April as a wave of people fleeing crime-riddled communities in Central America tried to enter the U.S., with many of them seeking asylum as refugees.
But in the face of widespread and bipartisan public backlash, Trump signed an executive order earlier this week reversing the policy of separating children from their parents and allowing families to be detained together while awaiting processing or prosecution for crossing the border illegally.
It is not known how many of those children are being held by The Villages or what their ages are. Democrats said they want answers to those questions. They also said they asked to see the children and view their conditions, but were told they would have to wait two weeks, until July 5, before they would be allowed to do so.
Colyer issued a statement late Friday saying he supports Trump’s decision to reverse his earlier policy about separating children from their families as they cross the border, and that state officials will soon inspect the facilities in Kansas where they are being held.
“While this is a federal program that the state does not manage or have control over, the Kansas Department (for) Children and Families will be conducting an inspection to ensure the Villages remains in line with state standards and procedures,” Colyer’s statement read. “Our hope is that these children are returned to their families as soon as possible.”
Previously, officials at The Villages had not specifically said whether the immigrant children being housed there were part of the group separated from their parents as a result of the Trump administration policy that began in April, but Democrats, at their news conference, said they had “inside” sources who said that they were, and Colyer’s statement appeared to confirm that.
Later Friday evening, DCF issued a statement saying an inspector had visited the facility, “to ensure the safety and well-being of the children placed at the facility.”
“From our visit, the children seem to be adjusting well, and are having their needs met,” the statement said. “While DCF licenses The Villages facilities, our agency has no direct oversight of the federal government’s contract with The Villages, which started in February 2017.
“Additionally, this (Friday) afternoon, Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel reached out to the executive director of The Villages to discuss the well-being of the children and the program in general and was satisfied that they are being provided excellent service in their time of need,” the statement continued.
In 2016, then-Gov. Sam Brownback halted the state’s participation in federal refugee resettlement programs, largely as a protest against then-President Barack Obama’s foreign policy. Since then, private nonprofit agencies in Kansas have worked directly with the federal government to find housing and sponsors for refugees coming into the U.S.
But Topeka Rep. John Alcala insisted that he believes the state still has a responsibility to make sure the children are properly cared for and eventually reunited with their families.
“I will tell you right now, who gives a (expletive) what the state’s authority is,” Alcala said. “Are those kids being cared for, and how is the money being spent? As elected officials, we owe those answers to our constituents.”
House Minority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, insisted that Democrats were not questioning the quality of care being provided by The Villages and even complimented the nonprofit agency for its long history of housing troubled youths in its group home settings.
But he, too, said the state bears responsibility for children being held in custody within the state’s borders.
“The state always has authority over its state boundaries,” he said. “We live in a federal system. The president isn’t a dictator. He can’t move (people) in and out of states without cooperation from our governor and our state.”