CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — A group that wants to reopen the Iowa Juvenile Home, which was closed by Gov. Terry Branstad earlier this year, is floating the idea of using the facility in Toledo to house unaccompanied immigrant children.
There’s no formal plan, according to Waterloo attorney and former U.S. Rep. Dave Nagle of the “Keep IJH Open” group. However, the group is working with advocacy groups that have called for the state to welcome the children. AFSCME, which represented employees at the Toledo home for delinquent girls, is supporting the idea.
The group’s suggestion comes after revelations that more than 100 children who entered the country illegally have been placed in Iowa. According to initial reports, 122 children were placed in Iowa by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Sen. Chuck Grassley’s office said it was told 139 children had been placed, many with family.
“We simply put it out there for discussion,” Nagle said.
It’s a “valid option,” according to Sen. Jack Hatch, who was among Democrats who went to court to overturn Gov. Terry Branstad’s closing of the facility amid allegations of abuse by staff members.
It would get consideration if the state enjoyed leadership like that delivered by Republican Gov. Robert Ray, who oversaw the resettlement of Southeast Asian refugees in the 1970s, said Hatch, the Democratic challenger to Branstad’s re-election plans.
“This state deserves that kind of leadership, but doesn’t have it right now,” he added.
While “deeply empathetic” for the children, Branstad said the “federal government is sending a signal of false hope and jeopardizing the lives of unaccompanied alien children who are currently making a very dangerous journey from Central America.”
The governor believes the federal government “ought to focus on increasing transparency with state officials in regards to immigrant placement, enact sound immigration policy and, most importantly, secure our southern border,” according to Branstad spokesman Jimmy Centers.
Given that position, AFSCME Local 61 President Danny Homan is not optimistic about reopening the Iowa Juvenile Home to host immigrant children.
“I’m under no illusions this governor is going to open the Iowa Juvenile Home to them given all he has said about that he doesn’t want them here,” the union chief said.
That won’t stop him from pushing the idea because “it’s the right thing to do.”
Nagle called the home an ideal setting for the immigrant children because it has housing, kitchen and medical facilities as well as classrooms.
Toledo would be a good setting for the children because of the Hispanic population in the Tama-Toledo area, Nagle said. Also, the community has “shown a capacity to work with divergent populations.”
Homan downplayed the suggestion that AFSCME is supporting the idea because housing unaccompanied immigrant children there would put some of its members back to work. Immigrant children, he said, would need different services than was provided to the juvenile home and school.
“We support it … because it’s kids,” he said. “We’ve got to have somewhere for them. That facility would work well.”
The federal government has been leasing facilities, such as abandoned college campuses, to house the children. It’s estimated nearly 60,000 children have arrived, many from Central America.
The federal government hasn’t been in contact with Iowa about using the Iowa Juvenile Home or any other state facility, according to Branstad spokesman Jimmy Centers. The state isn’t making any preparations to house immigrants in state facilities, including the Iowa Juvenile Home, he added.
Nagle, Homan and others will continue to push for using the Iowa Juvenile Home.
“We have a facility sitting there that is vacant that would work for them,” Homan said. “If all the parties wanted to make it work, they could make it work.”
“What’s the alternative?” he said.
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