Plan To House Child Migrants In Arizona Town Stirs Controversy

By Jude Joffe-Block
July 15, 2014


Jude Joffe-Block
A group protesting the potential arrival of child migrants in Oracle, Ariz.

ORACLE, Ariz. — A plan to temporarily house some child migrants in the Arizona town of Oracle is sparking protest plans. Both sides of the immigration debate held dueling rallies on Tuesday.

This is the latest local fight over how to handle the more than 57,000 children who have arrived at the border in recent months.

Sycamore Canyon Academy in Oracle released a statement on Monday that said “at the urgent request of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,” it would temporarily house a small number of unaccompanied child migrants. 

“These children will be temporarily placed at the campus by [HHS's Office of Refugee Resettlement] until they can be properly processed and placed with an appropriate sponsor or repatriated to their home country,” read the statement signed by program director Carl Ike Shipman.

The academy in Oracle is a private nonprofit residential facility that typically serves at-risk kids from Southern Arizona.

Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu denounced the idea.

"We already have our hands full fighting the drug cartels and human smugglers,” Babeu said in a statement. "These children should be returned to their home country — not to Oracle, Arizona paid for by American taxpayers."

Jude Joffe-Block
Some protesters of child migrants in Oracle, Ariz., have bilingual signs.

Some local residents believed buses from Immigration and Customs Enforcement could transport the children as early as Tuesday and about 60 were in place to protest their possible arrival on Tuesday morning.

But by the middle of the day a bus had not appeared. The Department of Health and Human Services released a statement in the afternoon that there was no plan to send a bus on this date.

In the statement, the agency said it operates shelters in serveral states for migrant children and that "HHS officials are currently reviewing a proposal for Sycamore Canyon Academy to serve as one of these shelters." 

Oracle resident Bruce Bemis was among the protestors and said these children should be sent back immediately, regardless of the conditions they face in their home countries.

"There is plenty of violence in this country that we need to deal with. We don’t need to deal with somebody else’s problem. That is their problem," Bemis said. "Health, diseases, you know criminality, how old are these kids? We don’t even know that."

Jude Joffe-Block
The group protesting the potential arrival of migrant children in Oracle, Ariz. turned out to be smaller than the counter-protest group.

Another resident, Eldon Rhoades said once the bus transporting children appears, his goal is to turn the bus around.

"I don’t think the driver will run us over in the road, but if they do, like Nathan Hale said he only had one regret he only had one life to give his country. Some of us may die," Rhoades said.

In a statement the immigrant rights group Somos America said it condemns the protest, and “seeks to provide a peaceful alternative to the fear based panic which is being caused by the recklessness of tea party agitators and Sheriff Paul Babeu.”

The mood was much different a few miles down the road where activists in support of the children bowed their heads in prayer. Then they held up signs saying things like bienvenidos, to welcome the kids in case a bus did appear. 

Oracle resident Mary Ellen Kazda was among a group of more than 100 people who rallied to show support for the migrant children.

"Because they are refugees and they need a place to be sheltered. If Sycamore Canyon is an appropriate place for them, and I can only trust the people making those decisions, so be it," Kazda said.

Jude Joffe-Block
Pro-immigrant activists came to Oracle, Ariz. to counter those protesting the housing of migrant children.

Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake told NPR's Here & Now that he understands there is frustration at the local level that the federal government has not done a better job coordinating on this effort. But he suggested the protests were misguided.

"Having said that, I think it was unfortunate and I hope that people are leading those kinds of protests would reconsider, I don't think it speaks well for us," Flake said.

Flake meanwhile is pushing legislation that would allow for speedier deportations of child migrants.

ICE is tasked with transporting migrant children to shelters, but the agency does not comment on those plans for security reasons.

Earlier this month, a plan to temporarily house migrants in the California town of Murrieta provoked protests.

Updated 7/17/2014 at 10:05 a.m.

Editor's Note: This article has updated to reflect the correct spelling of Bruce Bemis' name.