Lou Barletta, an illegal-immigration hawk and former congressman running for governor, said Wednesday he would take a harder line against the federal government's yearslong practice of bringing unaccompanied minors found by the Border Patrol to various facilities in Pennsylvania and other states.
Some Republican governors have protested the practice this year and are looking for ways to block it in their states.
In the past decade, the number of unaccompanied children found at the border has jumped dramatically, expanding the need for the federal government to place the children throughout the United States while they pursue their cases in backlogged immigration courts.
Barletta, a Republican vying for the party’s nomination in a big primary field, said he would stop the practice in cases where the state doesn't know the medical and criminal backgrounds of the minors, who must be 17 or under to be in the resettlement program.
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“It would stop when I’m governor of Pennsylvania because I also recognize the danger and the risks of putting people into our schools without having any idea what the background of that person is,” Barletta said in an interview.
Barletta pointed to a newly unveiled platform by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as something he supports.
One aspect is legislation to prohibit state and local agencies from doing business with “any private entities that facilitate the resettlement of illegal aliens” from the southern border. Another is a regulation that prohibits the licensing of agencies that provide services to unaccompanied migrant children unless the state consents to it.
Weeks earlier, DeSantis highlighted reports that the 24-year-old suspect in a stabbing death posed as a teenager at the border in order to cross as an unaccompanied minor.
Barletta also said he would refuse to allow the migrant children into Pennsylvania schools, unless they met vaccine requirements that apply to all students.
In recent weeks, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services flew migrant children into Wilkes-Barre-Scranton International Airport, the agency said late Tuesday. Its statement followed days of inaccurate reports by local politicians and others about the flights.
The department has released little other information about the minors, prompting protests from Barletta about the department's lack of disclosure and silence about it from Gov. Tom Wolf.
More flights are scheduled to arrive at the airport Thursday and Friday, Barletta said.
Wolf, a Democrat who's constitutionally barred from running for another term, hasn't objected to the flights or the department's practices. In a statement, Wolf's office said immigration questions should be directed to the federal government and suggested that Barletta and others are pulling a “political PR stunt.”
Still, the flights are not unusual.
The department's Office of Refugee Resettlement has housed more than 350,000 of the migrant children across the country and in every state in the past seven years, according to its figures.
More than 5,800 of them came to Pennsylvania, spanning the presidential administrations of Democrat Barack Obama, Republican Donald Trump and now Democrat Joe Biden.
In South Carolina, Republican Gov. Henry McMaster banned foster care and group homes there from taking in migrant children.
One of Barletta's complaints — that states don’t know enough about the migrant children being brought there — echo those of DeSantis and Republican officeholders in Tennessee. There, Republican Gov. Bill Lee refused a request by the Biden administration to house migrant children in Tennessee National Guard facilities.
Children are typically released to sponsors, usually parents or close relatives, and aided by local charitable organizations.
While in the department's custody, the children receive vaccinations under a “catch-up” schedule for those who are behind and sponsors are given a copy of the child’s medical and immunization records compiled during their time in custody, the department said. They are tested and vaccinated for COVID-19, it said.
As mayor of Hazleton for more than a decade, Barletta gained national prominence for accusing the federal government of failing to enforce immigration laws.
Barletta said his experience on the House Homeland Security Committee taught him that U.S. border authorities don’t have the time or resources to thoroughly investigate migrant children's backgrounds.
"You literally do not know who that person is or what their background is, or their age, so if they say they’re a minor, we don't really know if they’re a minor,” Barletta said.