WOMELSDORF, Pa. - Amid calls for expedited deportations, and counterarguments to allow the tens of thousands of unaccompanied children who have entered the United States illegally to stay, the issue is both a political football and a gut check on American values.
While the crisis at the border in the Southwest can seem far away, it has a ripple effect in Pennsylvania, too.
"Communities all across the country are being affected," U.S. Rep. Patrick Meehan (R., Pa.) said Tuesday after visiting Bethany Children's Home, a sanctuary for troubled youths on a sprawling campus next to Berks County farm fields.
Since the middle of June, under a contract with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Bethany has provided temporary shelter for unaccompanied immigrant children ages 5 to 14.
The goal of Bethany's program, said Meehan, who was joined by two other Republican congressmen from Pennsylvania, Jim Gerlach of Chester County and Charlie Dent of Lehigh County, is to reunite the children, if possible, with responsible adults and send them back to their home countries. Similar programs are operating throughout the country.
Immigrant-rights groups say the children should be allowed to stay and apply for relief, including asylum. The border crisis is a refugee crisis, they say.
Bethany, which was founded 150 years ago to help children orphaned by the Civil War, ordinarily serves about 60 boys and girls who are sent there by the family courts.
Now it also has capacity for 32 unaccompanied immigrant youths, who generally stay 10 to 12 days. Since the start of the resettlement program, it has helped find placements for about 60 immigrant children, none in Pennsylvania, the congressmen said.
Eight immigrant children were at the home Tuesday, including a 5-year-old girl "who can't swim and is having nightmares" about her crossing into the U.S. on a rickety raft, said Dent. He did not know her nationality.
Citing privacy concerns, Bethany officials would not allow the children to be interviewed or photographed.
"All of this is background for what Congress will do," Gerlach said, when in the coming weeks it takes up President Obama's supplementary budget request for $3.7 billion to address border security and the humanitarian response to the flood of children.
Advocates for immigrants say the rampant gang violence, frequent domestic abuse, and grinding poverty of Central America have caused tens of thousands of unaccompanied youths, primarily from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, to seek safe haven in the U.S.
Proponents of limited legal immigration say "open borders" makes a laughing stock of security. Law and order must prevail, they say, if U.S. citizenship is to mean anything.
Meanwhile, the numbers are soaring. About 25,000 unaccompanied juveniles entered illegally last year, according to HHS. Already this year, more than 57,000 have been caught at the border, with many walking up to the nearest patrol agent and turning themselves in.
Dent said that Congress was not prepared to give Obama all the money he was asking for and that border integrity had to be the first priority, a view shared by others in his party.
"It's a tough situation," he said. "We have an obligation to treat these immigrants humanely, and secure the border."
Responding to a reporter's question, Gerlach contended that the immigration reform bill passed a year ago by the Senate, and never acted upon by the House, would not have stemmed the current crisis, which is driven by an expectation of leniency if a child can just get here.
Meehan blamed a 2008 anti-human-trafficking law that treats immigrants who enter illegally from Central America differently than those who are Mexican or Canadian.
The ones from Mexico and Canada are returned "within a day," he said. Those designated "OTM - other than Mexican" are transferred to HHS custody with 72 hours and can seek remedies, including asylum.
Several bills have been filed to amend that law.
The congressmen agreed that only desperate parents entrust their children to coyotes to be smuggled into the U.S.
"I have three kids," Dent said. "I can't imagine handing them off to a stranger to go a thousand miles."
In some cases, Meehan said, the smugglers are the very gangs that wreak havoc in Central America. "They control the routes," he said. It's "a source of income."
When a reporter asked whether sending children back to the conditions they fled just put them in danger again, Dent said a lot of countries have desperate situations. He cited his Syrian American constituents who were desperate to get their Christian relatives out of that war-torn land.
"The day will come," he said, "when we have to become more invested in stabilizing" the countries of Central America in order to stem the tide of out-migration.