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Branstad said ‘maybe’ before he said ‘no’

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad became a hero to border-security proponents Monday when he said he opposed bringing illegals into Iowa.

“The first thing we need to do is secure the border. I do have empathy for these kids … But I also don’t want to send the signal that (you) send your kids to America illegally. That’s not the right message.”

He also told the Associated Press he didn’t think there were any illegals in Iowa.

What he didn’t say, however, is that his administration first considered allowing illegal entrant children – referred to by the federal government officially as “unaccompanied alien children” – to be housed, nearly 50 at a time, more than a month ago. The children were to be housed at Clarinda Academy, a residential foster care facility that works with at-risk youth from all around the United States.

Clarinda Academy is operated by Sequel Youth & Family Services, which leases space from the State of Iowa at the Clarinda Treatment Complex in Southwest Iowa. According to Sequel Executive Vice President Steve Gilbert, the nonprofit was contacted earlier this year about operating a short-term shelter program by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

“We were contacted by ORR asking if we would consider,” Gilbert said. “We explored the opportunity and decided not to proceed.”

Despite that, several job postings for staff to implement the program were initiated by Sequel in mid-June. The posting for a case manager position gave a brief overview of what the short-term shelter program would entail:

Clarinda Academy, a residential foster care facility working with at-risk youth located in Clarinda, Iowa, is preparing to open a new 48-bed short-term shelter program for Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) who are referred by the Office of Refugee Resettlement.  Services provided will include medical and mental health assessments, educational assessment, life skills training, and recreational activities.

Gilbert said none of advertised positions have been filled, and that the nonprofit is in the process of having the remaining job board postings removed. Sequel also operates Woodward Academy in Central Iowa, as well as other residential foster care programs across the U.S.

There is no evidence to suggest Woodward Academy was ever considered for housing unaccompanied alien children. Other Sequel facilities do have ads posted for positions similar to those posted for Clarinda Academy.

The ORR’s Unaccompanied Refugee Minors program has been in operation since 1980. It “ensures that eligible unaccompanied minor populations receive the full range of assistance, care and services available to all foster children in the state by establishing a legal authority to act in place of the child’s unavailable parent(s).”

By its own accounting, however, the program has never dealt with the numbers of children that are being reported at the southern border. Since last October, nearly 60,000 children have crossed the border illegally, most of them from Central America.

Another 150,000 are expected in the next 12 months.

According to the ORR, it reached a peak of 3,828 children in care in 1985. Prior to the recent flood of illegals, ORR had about 1,300 children in care. Those children are placed in licensed foster homes, as well as therapeutic foster care, group homes, residential treatment centers and independent living programs, depending on the individual needs of each child.

The supposed purpose of the program, however, is to get the children back with their parents. But, if “reunification” isn’t possible – as is the case when young children who are effectively dumped on a train and left by their parents – the URM program “works to design a case specific permanency plan for each minor or youth in care.”

Many communities all across the U.S. – particularly those in Southwestern states – have been adamant about telling the federal government “not here,” leaving the ORR scrambling to deal with the continuing flood of unaccompanied alien children.

Branstad spokesman Jimmy Centers, when asked to comment on the possibility of Clarinda Academy – or its sister facility, Woodward Academy in central Iowa – being used to house illegals, expounded on the governor’s stated position.

“Gov. Branstad empathizes with the children and their parents who are seeking a better life in America, but he believes we must secure our border first and follow immigration laws already in place,” he said. The governor is concerned that the situation at the border, if not handled properly,  may encourage others to attempt the very dangerous journey across Central America and Mexico.”

Pressed about the existence of job descriptions to use the state-owned facilities in Clarinda to house unaccompanied alien children, Centers first said the state “is not currently working with or in talks with” the federal government regarding the immigration situation.

“The state is not aware of any undocumented immigrants coming to Iowa,” he said. “The state isn’t making any preparations to house immigrants at state owned facilities, including Clarinda.”

Pressed further about Sequel’s possible role as a private organization using state-owned facilities, Centers shared more information about the decision-making process. He also discussed the challenges faced with placing unaccompanied alien children at the Clarinda Treatment Complex, which houses both a medium-security prison, a minimum-security correctional release facility, and one of the state’s four mental health hospitals.

“Department directors advised Gov. Branstad that placing undocumented immigrant children on the same campus as criminals would present significant challenges … placing undocumented immigrants on campus would stretch resources and could limit the care and attention those already at the facility receive,” he said.

“Ultimately, Department of Corrections Director John Baldwin and Department of Human Services Director Chuck Palmer advised Gov. Branstad that the Clarinda facility is not a viable option for undocumented immigrants.”

“Simply put, immigrant children are not on their way to Clarinda.”