More than 500 migrant children among the tens of thousands who have flooded the southern U.S. border are being housed in Pennsylvania, attracting a visit from some members of Congress and at least one tea-party protest.
The state Department of Public Welfare confirmed Wednesday that federal officials told them 120 children are in two temporary centers, KidsPeace in Bethlehem and the Bethany Children's Home outside of Reading in Berks County. The other 386 youngsters are staying with "sponsors" including relatives and religious groups, said spokeswoman Kait Gillis.
More are expected to follow. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has approved temporary housing grants for at least two other facilities to house the children for roughly one-month stays until they can be reunited with their families.
The Holy Family Institute in Emsworth outside of Pittsburgh, operated by the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth, expects to take in at least 20 children and possibly as many as 36, said Sister Linda Yankoski, the institute's chief executive officer.
Such humanitarian missions are "just part of our heritage as a religious order," said Yankowski, whose institute played a key role in the rescue of 54 children from a Haitian orphanage following a January 2010 earthquake.
"I'm just hoping that hearts will be open and warmed" over time as the crisis plays out," Yankoski said. "Obviously there's a negative, but the good outweighs the bad."
In the Harrisburg suburb of Mechanicsburg, the United Methodist Home for Children, has been approved to take in as many as 16 youngsters starting next month.
More than 57,000 minors, mostly from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, have crossed into the United States since October — fueling an already intense debate over immigration in Washington and across the nation.
President Obama is seeking $3.7 billion appropriation for more immigration judges and detention facilities, while congressional Republicans are demanding a smaller appropriation coupled with changes in federal law to speed up deportations.
Three GOP congressmen from Pennsylvania — Jim Gerlach, Patrick Meehan and Charlie Dent — visited the Bethany facility on Tuesday. They said they would support new spending to help deal with the young immigrants, but at a lower level than the president requested.
On Sunday, about 100 tea party protesters picketed the Kidspeace facility, prompting a counter-demonstration by the group's supporters.
On Friday, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett expressed concern that the migrant youngsters might pose health risks and suggested that federal authorities use military bases in Texas or Arizona for checkups.