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A few days after Iowa’s governor was spotlighted on MSNBC for declaring undocumented children from Central America unwelcome in his state, Meet the Press highlighted one Iowa city’s plan to welcome them.

Governor Terry Branstad is this week digging in his heels, even after drawing wide criticism for his hard-line stance. Meanwhile, Davenport Mayor Bill Gluba is talking logistics with leaders from hospitals, schools, charities and churches.

Branstad raised the issue last week after returning from Tennessee, where the federal Health and Human Services secretary was appealing to various governors to house immigrant children. Iowa’s governor refused, but Davenport’s mayor reached out to the White House on his own.

This is not a Democrat vs. Republican issue. It’s a humanitarian crisis. Since October, 57,000 children, mostly from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, have arrived without parents or papers and are waiting for their cases to be reviewed by immigration officials. Border patrol stations are overflowing. So HHS officials are scrambling to find places for the children while the president appeals for money for faster processing of their cases.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who was in Iowa days earlier, campaigning for a fellow Republican governor, has said he was willing to take in some children if asked. “We are an empathetic people in this country and we don’t like seeing people suffer,” CNN reported him saying.

Former Republican Iowa governor Robert Ray responded to a call following the Vietnam War in the 1970s to take in thousands of Southeast Asian refugees. But Branstad says the situations aren’t comparable because those families arrived intact and legally, while the Central American kids were brought without papers by crooked people. “They told them lies that if they could get here, they could stay,” declared Branstad. “That is not true.”

So if the kids were exploited and lied to, that should be grounds for our turning our backs on them, too?

Texas Governor Rick Perry used the occasion to mobilize up to 1,000 National Guard troops to secure the border. Declaring that drug cartels, human traffickers and individual criminals “are exploiting this tragedy for their own criminal ends,” Perry said, “I will not stand idly by while our citizens are under assault and little children are detained in squalor.”

But he might just exploit it for political ends — blame the president for not securing the borders and then close the door on the kids.

What Perry, Branstad and others ignore is that the current situation has roots in a bipartisan 2008 law Congress passed on “unaccompanied alien minors,” intended to protect potential child trafficking victims. It requires border patrol agents to turn unaccompanied children from Central America over to HHS within 72 hours to be placed in appropriate short-term housing while their cases are studied for evidence they were being trafficked for labor or sex.

The law came in response to concern that young trafficking victims were being turned away at the border before their circumstances could be evaluated, notes Ambassador Luis CdeBaca, who heads the State Department’s anti-human trafficking office. “It didn’t create an incentive to lie or send kids here,” he said.

CdeBaca said the law was the result of, “folks who normally wouldn’t have been working together on an immigration issue coming together to say, ‘What do we do to protect children?'”

Religious and business communities see it as a matter of conscience and compassion for the most vulnerable. A Des Moines businessman who runs a charitable foundation has started “1,000 Kids for Iowa,” which is working on finding homes for as many kids. But an Iowa nonprofit agency that wanted to set up a shelter to house 48 immigrant children on space it rents from the state backed off after meeting with state officials.

Sequel Youth and Family Services, which runs a program for troubled youth on correctional facility space, responded to a request from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement in May. It had advertised for Spanish-speaking case managers for the shelter. But state agency heads didn’t think the space was appropriate, and said the plan would stretch resources, according to a Branstad spokesman.

Or was it that his administration didn’t want to be seen as cooperating with Obama’s?

Either way, governors like Iowa’s who take such an unyielding stance in the face of a humanitarian crisis may find themselves outnumbered by local leaders and individuals who recognize this is about protecting innocent children — and mobilize to help.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

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