Immigration experts are questioning statements by Gov. Tom Corbett that child migrants from Central America could cause “health issues” in Pennsylvania.
As many as 60,000 unaccompanied minors are expected to arrive from Central America this year at the U.S.-Mexico border, spurred to make the journey north by gang violence and extreme poverty.
Speaking on Pittsburgh radio station KDKA on Friday, the governor said he wanted children to remain in border stations in Texas and Arizona until they can be screened for communicable diseases.
“Measles is one that comes to mind very quickly and whatever other diseases that they may or may not have,” he said. “But we cannot be a country that just takes everything that comes here without at least looking into the background.”
Corbett said he was concerned about plans by The Holy Family Institute in Pittsburgh to provide temporary housing for about 40 children under the age of 12, saying it will be an “imposition” on the neighborhood and the state.
Under federal law, the children may remain in the U.S. while they make their case to an American immigration court to stay permanently. The government is looking for additional temporary housing for the children until they can be placed with a family member or foster family in the country.
U.S. Health and Human Services officials say they are conducting health screenings and providing any needed vaccinations when children are taken into custody by border patrol agents.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spokeswoman points out the Central American countries in question have comprehensive vaccination programs comparable to those in the U.S. Data compiled from UNICEF and the World Health Organization show measles vaccination rates in 2012 marginally higher in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador than in the U.S.
Kathaleen Gillis, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, said the state had questions about how to evaluate these statistics.
“One of the reasons for the children leaving Central America is because of the poor conditions. If there are poor conditions, how is this vaccination occurring? By who and where?” she wrote in an email.
She said the federal government had done an inadequate job communicating with states about its plans for the young immigrants.
“HHS seeks to work closely with the states to respond to this humanitarian situation. HHS is engaging with state officials to address concerns they may have about the care or impact of unaccompanied children in their states,” said Kenneth Wolfe, department spokesman.
He said there had been reports of respiratory illness among “several unaccompanied minors housed in a federally managed temporary shelter at Naval Base Ventura County in California. The minors had earlier crossed the U.S.-Mexico border and were then relocated to the temporary shelter.” HHS put new screening procedures in place last week for any children who will be moved by plane, Wolfe said.
Henry Fernandez, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, claimed anti-immigrant groups have used health scares to scare the public.
“It’s unfortunate that a sitting governor would take his messaging from those kinds of organizations as opposed to from the leading health professionals who look at this. I would hope that he would quickly back off of this misstatement.”
Cases of flu and lice reported at some shelters, which Gillis cited as a cause for concern, are common childhood occurrences and should not be characterized as a significant threat to public health, Fernandez said.
The CDC said it and “other federal health officials note that recent cases of possible respiratory illness likely pose little or no risk to the general public.”
The Obama administration had reached out to the state of Delaware, which said it did not have facilities with capacity to accept large numbers of children. But a spokesman for Gov. Jack Markell said that the governor “is open to working with other organizations to help these young people.”
During a trip to Iowa last week, Gov. Chris Christie indicated that he would consider housing migrant children in New Jersey.