Iowa Juvenile Home offered as refuge for unaccompanied immigrant children

CEDAR RAPIDS – A group that wants to re-open the state-run Iowa Juvenile Home is floating the idea of using the facility to house unaccompanied immigrant children.

Waterloo attorney and former U.S. Rep. Dave Nagle, of the organization Keep IJH Open, is working with advocacy groups that have called for the state to welcome the children. Nagle said the idea is in the early stages.

“We simply put it out there for discussion,” Nagle said.

Gov. Terry Branstad closed the home after questions were raised about the treatment of teenagers, including use of isolation cells and a lack of educational opportunities.

The empty facility is in Toledo in Tama County, Iowa. The youth housed there have been moved to private facilities.

More than 57,000 minors have arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border since October and are being cared for in the U.S. Most are from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

Under current law, immigrant children from countries that do not border the United States and cross into the U.S. by themselves are turned over to federal authorities.

The issue has caused a political controversy about how to handle children who enter America illegally. The federal government has been leasing facilities, such as abandoned college campuses, to house the children.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has said 122 of the children were placed in Iowa from Jan. 1 to June 30. The placements were through the Unaccompanied Alien Children program.

Branstad has been opposed to hosting any of the Central American children.

Nagle called the home an ideal setting for the 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.”

Danny Homan, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union that represented workers at the home, said the Iowa officials should consider the plan because “we’ve got to have somewhere for them.”

“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.”

While “deeply empathetic” for the children, Branstad thinks 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,” said Branstad spokesman Jimmy Centers.

Centers said the federal government hasn’t been in contact with them about using any state facilities. The state isn’t making any preparations for housing, he said.

State Sen. Jack Hatch, D-Des Moines, who is running against Republican Branstad for governor, on Monday called the idea of using the home for immigrant children “a valid option.”

He pointed to Republican Iowa Gov. Robert Ray, who oversaw the resettlement of Southeast Asian refugees in the 1970s.

“This state deserves that kind of leadership, but doesn’t have it right now,” Hatch said.

Homan, the union official, said he understands the political reality regarding the immigrant issue.

“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,” he said.

That won’t stop him from pushing the idea, he said, because “it’s the right thing to do.”