MONTPELIER -- Vermont does not have adequate facilities to house some of the undocumented immigrant children from Central America being held at the U.S. border, the Shumlin administration said Monday.
"Unlike Massachusetts, Vermont does not have a hosting site that meets Health and Human Services' Criteria," said a letter from Gov. Peter Shumlin to Christie Hager, regional director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. HHS has released a guideline suggesting the need for a 90,000-square-foot facility that could house about 1,000 children. Preferably, the building would also have space for recreation.
Shumlin announced his willingness last week to explore options to assist in national efforts to house the children until they can receive legal services.
Nearly 60,000 unaccompanied children from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are being held in detention centers, military bases and other facilities across Texas and Mexican border states. President Barack Obama has asked Congress to approve $3.7 billion in emergency funding to address the crisis. Meanwhile, Washington is polling states for locations that are willing and able to temporarily house the children.
Larry Crist, Red Cross Regional Executive for Vermont and the Upper Valley of New Hampshire, said Shumlin called on the Red Cross to assess possibilities for the placement of the children.
"We have, to the best of our knowledge, not found anywhere that meets that and the other requirements that were involved," Crist said.
The federal government has no timeline for when the children might arrive, or how long they could stay, said Sue Allen, the governor's spokeswoman. Although some Vermonters have offered to open their homes, foster care or adoption is not an option, the letter stated.
Massachusetts has identified two sites -- Camp Edwards military base in Bourne and Westover Reserve Air Force Base in Chicopee - as possible sites. Should the federal government send children there, Vermont has offered to assist in any way that's needed.
The Shumlin administration has also identified potential sites to house 75-100 children.
"My administration would be happy to discuss these options in greater detail if that would be helpful to you," the letter said. "Our ability to pursue any particular choice will depend upon further local and community engagement and as understanding of the federal support and oversight that would accompany such a situation."
Allen, who is coordinating the state's efforts, said the governor is not releasing the list because so much is up in the air.
"Every space we have, there are problems that come with it," she said.
"Barre Auditorium could hold 100, maximum 150, but there are limitations on that space," Allen explained. "The city of Barre uses it -- there are events, there's hockey in the winter."
Nevertheless, she said the administration would be willing to help however it can.
Obama has expedited the legal proceedings, but immigration hearings generally aren't held for about a month and asylum isn't granted for a year or two, Crist said.
In photos of children sleeping in piled masses, they're often pictured with Red Cross blankets. But even if Vermont did have the necessary facilities, Red Cross isn't in a position to run such an operation, he said.
"Our position is that we provide mass care and shelters on an emergency basis," Crist said, noting that Red Cross shelters are completely volunteer-run. "We can't open a shelter for three months absent a huge national disaster. It becomes a huge undertaking."
"Vermont has always welcomed refugees and immigrants. We were looking forward to have Vermont extend its welcome in a different way," said Stacie Blake, director of Government and Community Relations for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.
"Mostly, I appreciate that the governor's first response was to have an open mind, and respond to a serious, very legitimate request, not dismiss it out of hand," she said "Of course, it is true that Vermont doesn't have that type of facility."
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who has been active in pushing for immigration reform, complimented the governor for his willingness to consider the possibilities, said David Carle, spokesman for the senator. Leahy will continue to be involved in the process on the federal level, Carle added, but had no comment on Vermont's viability as a host.