Mayor Steve Benjamin introduced a resolution to “restate the founding principles of Columbia, South Carolina to welcome unaccompanied immigrant and refugee children and to support comprehensive immigration reform.” Photo by Sean Rayford
The Aug. 5 Columbia City Council work session had all the trappings of typical City Council gatherings: public safety issues, maintenance agreements, contract approvals, road renamings, refugee children and immigration reform.
Wait — refugee children and immigration reform?
Indeed, those topics — which certainly aren’t normal City Council fodder — bubbled to the surface last week as Mayor Steve Benjamin introduced a resolution to “restate the founding principles of Columbia, South Carolina to welcome unaccompanied immigrant and refugee children and to support comprehensive immigration reform.”
The measure passed by a count of 6-1, with Councilman Cameron Runyan dissenting.
The resolution was spurred by the continuing crisis along the U.S.-Mexico border, which has seen tens of thousands of unaccompanied children — many fleeing violence in countries such as Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — captured by immigration authorities.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, when a child who is not accompanied by a parent or guardian is apprehended by immigration authorities, the child is transferred to the care and custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).
Those children eventually are released to sponsors — often family members living in the U.S. — until their immigration case is processed.
The youngsters are given vaccinations and medical screenings before being released to their sponsors.
According to data provided by the ORR, 30,340 unaccompanied immigrant children were placed with sponsors in the U.S. between Jan. 1 and July 7.
The number of refugee children placed with sponsors varies from state to state. Texas is the state with the highest number of children placed, at 4,280. Meanwhile, Montana has the least, with only one unaccompanied immigrant child placed with a sponsor there.
South Carolina falls roughly in the middle of the scale, with 350 refugee children placed with sponsors in the Palmetto State.
Political reaction to the federal government’s disclosure that 350 unaccompanied refugee children have been placed in South Carolina has been mixed. According to the Associated Press, while she made clear she wants the children to be safe, Gov. Nikki Haley said the way the crisis is being handled is “wrong.”
“We’ve got our foster children in every one of our states and we are trying to balance a budget,” Haley said. “And because [the federal government] won’t do the one basic thing of securing our border, we are now taking on additional children. It’s just wrong. It’s wrong.”
Meanwhile, in boosting a resolution welcoming unaccompanied immigrant and refugee children to Columbia, Benjamin evoked the words of 18th century S.C. Sen. John Lewis Gervais, who said in 1786 that he hoped “the oppressed of every land might find a refuge under the wings of Columbia.”
“We are engaged in a very long and torturous discussion around immigration on the national level and on the federal level,” Benjamin said to his fellow Council members. “I think all people on all sides of the discussion would like to find some kind of resolution that works to secure our borders, but also allows the United States to be what it has always been: a beacon of hope to people across this world.”
Mayor Bob Coble was similarly welcoming of Somali Bantu refugees in 2004.
Runyan noted Columbia has “been a haven for the oppressed for many years.” However, he said he could not support Benjamin’s resolution, indicating the crisis with unaccompanied children is part of a much larger problem.
“This points to the fact that we’ve got a very real problem on the national level and the federal level,” Runyan said. “We’ve got to secure our borders. We’ve got to have a lawful path to citizenship for those who want to come in this country. I reached out to the governor’s office on two occasions to offer my support to her administration with anything I can do to help with this particular issue. I’m here to serve the people and do whatever I can to help going forward.”
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