Capitol Alert

California lawmakers tour shelter for immigrant children, urge Obama to act

A surge of unaccompanied immigrant minors into the United States has reached a “heartbreaking” magnitude and demands a federal response, California state legislators said after visiting a temporary housing facility on Tuesday.

“This human tragedy is really a humanitarian crisis,” Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, head of the California Latino Legislative Caucus, told reporters in a conference call. “These kids truly embody the human spirit of survival.”

The number of immigrant children becoming temporary wards of the government in 2014 is on pace to more than double last year’s total of 25,000, according to federal projections. Lara emphasized extending due process to the children to ensure they get full hearings before facing deportation. He called upon President Barack Obama to extend refugee status.

“Our hope is, when we reconvene in August, that we make this a formal request from the Latino caucus,” Lara said.

The remarks followed incoming Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, and other state legislators touring a Ventura County naval base serving as a detention facility for young immigrants who have crossed the border in recent weeks. The tour was closed to the media.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the facility housed 568 children. Lawmakers sounded upbeat about conditions there.

“Collectively we did come to a conclusion we’re quite satisfied with regards to the conditions,” de León said after the tour. “Many of them were in very good spirits – extremely well behaved, learning English, reciting historical facts of the United States.”

The Ventura County base is one of three makeshift, short-term shelters on military facilities in the United States, along with one in Texas and one in Oklahoma. Authorities actively work to place children in the shelters with adult family members. Children connected with family members could still be deported.

While the unsuccessful pursuit of immigration reform and a record number of deportations have already bedeviled Obama’s immigration record, the tidal wave of young immigrants traveling to the United States presents a uniquely urgent dilemma. It has demonstrated the issue’s volatility, crystallized by dueling protests in Murrieta that began with demonstrators turning back a bus carrying immigrants.

“I found their behavior shocking, as I think most of us have,” Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, said of the protesters.

California’s massive foreign-born population gives the issue added resonance for state lawmakers, many of whom are the children of immigrants. Another Democratic Assembly member toured an immigrant processing center in El Centro on Tuesday. Last month, the California Latino Legislative Caucus wrote the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to urge humane treatment and advocate a moratorium on deportations.

“These detained children have lost everything; their homes, their friends, and most importantly, their parents,” the letter states. “At such an uncertain and frightening time, these youth deserve, at the very least, benevolent care within the facility with which they are being detained.”

Immigration policy is set and enforced by the federal government, limiting Sacramento’s ability to respond. Legislators took the opportunity of speaking to reporters on Tuesday to renew their critique of Congress’ not passing comprehensive immigration reform legislation.

“What is happening at the border is a clear, direct manifestation of the lack of action on behalf of the members of Congress,” de León said.

Gov. Jerry Brown has not yet publicly addressed the influx. A spokesman for his office said they are monitoring developments.

“This is an issue we have been tracking very closely for weeks and the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services has been in daily contact with federal officials,” spokesman Evan Westrup said in an email. “We continue to focus on ensuring conditions are humane for the unaccompanied minors being housed by the federal government in California.”

Assemblyman Jeff Gorell, R-Camarillo, represents the district that encompasses the base. Gorell is fulfilling his U.S. Navy reserve training duty so was unavailable to join the tour and sent a staffer in his stead. His office has not heard from Immigration and Customs Enforcement about the ultimate fate of the children held at the base, a spokesman for Gorell said, and the current emphasis is on health and safety.

“Everybody is trying to find out what the plan is, because the whole thing came up so quickly and it feels like the locals were not given as much information and as much preparation as people would like,” said Douglas Lorenz, a spokesman for Gorell. “It’s really important that we make sure this is being done correctly, not just for the health of children that are there but also for the fact that Naval Base Ventura County is located in an urban area.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee