JACKSON — Gov. Phil Bryant’s decision to block additional legal child refugees from being resettled in Mississippi hasn’t changed following a meeting with Catholic, Methodist and Episcopal leaders.
Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Jackson runs a program to resettle child refugees under sponsorship of the Mississippi Department of Human Services.
Bryant again said he fears President Barack Obama will take over the program, which currently cares for 27 children in the state, and use it to send children who immigrated illegally to Mississippi. The administration has said it would allow current children to remain enrolled until they turn 21.
“My concern continues to lie with not trusting the Obama administration to run the program in the future as it has been run for over three decades, and not with how it’s actually fulfilled in the state,” Bryant said in a statement.
Bryant spokesman Knox Graham said Friday, however, that Bryant has received no indication that the Obama administration planned to change the program.
“The federal government has shown an unwillingness to be forthright with Mississippi and other states about its other programs, and has many times shown a complete disregard for its own immigration policies and law,” Graham wrote in an email. “That in itself is enough information for the governor to pause at the current time.”
Besides Mississippi, 13 other states and the District of Columbia resettle child refugees, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website. Federal officials did not immediately return phone calls and emails from The Associated Press.
Monsignor Elvin Sunds, deputy to Catholic Bishop of Jackson Joseph Kopacz, said he told Bryant that Catholic Charities only takes children who enter the U.S. legally. Bryant met Thursday with Sunds, outgoing Mississippi Episcopal Bishop Duncan Gray III, Episcopal Bishop-elect Brian Seage and Mississippi United Methodist Bishop James Swanson Sr.
In a Thursday interview with Mississippi Public Broadcasting, Bryant said he didn’t know the locations of children who entered the country illegally and were sent to Mississippi while awaiting deportation hearings, saying they might have health problems or be exploited. The Department of Health and Human Services has said that more than 200 children were sent to the state to live with sponsors through July 31, out of 37,000 nationwide.
“We want to know what health care conditions exist with these children,” Bryant told the radio network. “Where are they? Can human trafficking be a part of this? Is someone going to take advantage of these children? I’m worried about the safety of these children.”
Bill Chandler, executive director of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance, said assuming that children who enter the country illegally might be carrying disease is bigoted.
“Those kinds of attacks just fuel racism and he’s doing it deliberately and he’s been doing it for years,” Chandler said Friday.
Bryant has been decrying illegal immigration for about a decade, since he was state auditor.
As for the separate refugee program, Sunds said Catholic Charities meets state standards and is nationally accredited. The agency uses part of the nearly $1.7 million in federal funds to employ case workers, therapists and tutors.
“We don’t just bring these kids into the state and dump them,” Sunds said.
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