Chicago will set up additional shelters for unaccompanied immigrant children to be funded by the federal government and run by local charities, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said on Monday.
Increasing numbers of children, mostly from crime-plagued Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, are crossing into the United States from Mexico, and shelters near the border are strained. Some of the children are immediately flown home to Central America, but immigration authorities send most of them to temporary shelters in cities around the United States until they are placed with family members while they await deportation proceedings that can last for years.
While some cities - such as Escondido, California and Oracle, Arizona - have resisted efforts to set up temporary shelters for unaccompanied minor immigrants, officials in other cities are more welcoming. Dallas Judge Clay Jenkins has offered federal authorities empty buildings in a risky political move as he faces re-election in November.
Increasing shelter space for minors is not seen as putting Democrat Emanuel in any political jeopardy, although some community groups in Chicago have criticized President Barack Obama's proposal to increase spending on immigration measures rather than on programs for struggling neighborhoods in Chicago.
"The influx of unaccompanied child migrants is a growing humanitarian crisis that we can no longer ignore," said Emanuel in the statement. "While we have our own challenges at home, we cannot turn our backs on children who are fleeing dangerous conditions. We will do our part to ensure that these children are given access to services and treated fairly and humanely."
Chicago already has nine shelters that house several hundred immigrant children on a short-term basis.
One of the most pressing needs for the children is legal aid as many of them try to argue that they should be granted asylum because they would face danger or persecution if sent back home. Without a lawyer it can be difficult to establish grounds for asylum or for special immigration status for neglected children.
Emanuel said that Chicago would expand legal aid services - through a network of pro bono lawyers from big firms - to meet the demands of the rising population in the new shelter.
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