Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, D, appears to be facing the consequences of sharply challenging the Obama administration’s efforts to deal with an influx of immigrant children who have crossed the border into this country unaccompanied.
O'Malley spoke at length to reporters last Friday about the need for compassion for these children. And he said that the government should not “summarily send children to death” by forcing them to return home, a reference to the administration’s effort to speed deportations, add immigration judges and beef up border security. Within hours, O'Malley said he received a phone call from a White House official.
By Tuesday, details of that private conversation leaked to political reporters via a “Democratic source” – and not one in Annapolis, according to O'Malley aides. The comments painted O'Malley as a hypocrite: the governor didn’t want these immigrant children returned to their home countries, the source said, but he refused to shelter them in his own state, opposing a proposed site in Carroll County that has since been removed from the list of options.
O'Malley – who is considering a run for the White House in 2016 – said in an interview on Wednesday morning that his comments about the site had been misconstrued, and he is “absolutely” willing to have the children sheltered in Maryland. And he firmly stood by his previous comments challenging the Obama administration, which has been a close ally up until now.
“What we have here is a need to solve a problem,” O'Malley said after attending a Maryland Democratic Party unity breakfast in Greenbelt. “I think that the president has been very courageous in advocating for comprehensive immigration reform, but let’s not confuse that with the very real-life humanitarian crisis of kids who are on our doorstep.”
When asked if he was upset that the private conversation was made public, O'Malley said Wednesday: “I really don’t care. I’m far more concerned about children being penned up and cooped up in conditions that look a lot more like kennels than they look like the way a humane country should be treating refugee kids.”
At the heart of this fight is an empty former Army Reserves Center in Westminster, Maryland, one of several locations across the country considered by the Department of Health and Human Services. The agency notified Carroll County leaders on Thursday evening of their interest – quickly sparking a swift and visceral reaction from local Republicans.
The next day, O'Malley and two other governors spoke at a National Governors Association press conference in Nashville, where the topic of immigration came up. O'Malley deviated from the usual Democratic immigration talking points and challenged the administration, making him one of the highest-ranking Democrats to do so on this issue.
“Through all of the great world religions, we are told that hospitality to strangers is an essential human dignity, it is a belief that unites all of us,” O'Malley said, according to a transcript of his remarks. “These children who have fled this violence are entitled to due process . . . they should have their ability to make their case for protection and asylum in the United States.”
Hours later, White House Domestic Policy Director Cecilia Muñoz called O'Malley to discuss his remarks, which greatly frustrated her, according to O'Malley aides. The governor would not comment Wednesday on her tone.
“We’ve had many conversations, but this is the one that she chose to leak,” O'Malley said Wednesday.
During the conversation, O'Malley said he raised concerns about the proposed shelter in Westminster, a town of about 18,600 that’s about 35 miles northwest of Baltimore in Carroll County, a deeply conservative stronghold in this mostly Democratic state. Last year county leaders voted to make English their official language, despite protests that such an action was unwelcoming to immigrants.
“I suggested to them that the location still under consideration in Westminster might not be the most inviting environment for the kids,” O'Malley said.
O'Malley said that his concerns were confirmed over the weekend when graffiti appeared on the empty military center: “No illeagles here. No undocumented Democrats.” The Maryland State Police are investigating the message as a hate crime.
O'Malley said that the best living arrangement for these children is with relatives already living in the U.S. If a child does not have family, then he said a foster home or temporary housing should be an option, perhaps tapping into the generosity of churches. He said that large shelters, like the one that was proposed in Westminster, should be a last resort.
O'Malley said that state officials on Monday began the paperwork process of searching for more foster care providers in Maryland who could care for some of these children. “I will continue to work to alleviate the humanitarian crisis,” O'Malley said. “And I think every governor and every mayor in America, and every American citizen, has some responsibility and role to play here. It’s who we are as a people.”