July 16th, 2014

In interview with CNN, O’Malley defends call with White House on immigrant kids

(CNN) – Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley defended his criticism of Obama administration plans to return thousands of undocumented children to Central America, even after his remarks sparked a heated discussion with a senior White House official.

In an interview with CNN, O’Malley acknowledged that he asked White House domestic policy adviser Cecilia Muñoz that the immigrants not be sent to a site in western Maryland that was under consideration.

“What I said was that would not be the most inviting site in Maryland. There are already hundreds of kids already located throughout Maryland,” O’Malley said of his phone conversation with Munoz.

A potential Democratic presidential candidate in 2016 and rival to Hillary Clinton, O’Malley urged the White House to welcome the children to the United States as “refugees.”

“The bigger point is that we are Americans, and we do not return refugee kids who find themselves on our doorstep back into war-torn or famine-racked places where they will face certain death. So I think we have to act like Americans,” he said.

A Democratic source familiar with the call suggested O’Malley’s request was hypocritical, given his sharp rebuke of the administration’s proposal to give the Homeland Security Department more power to expedite deportations of unaccompanied minors and their families.

“He privately said ‘please don’t send these kids to western Maryland,'” the Democratic source said.

Muñoz called O’Malley to complain about comments he made to reporters only hours earlier about White House plans, sources with knowledge of the call said.

“We are not a country that should turn children away and send them back to certain death,” O’Malley said last week at a National Governors Association meeting in Nashville.

Instead, the governor urged the administration to show compassion, describing some of the facilities where the young detainees are being kept as “kennels.”

“Through all of the great world religions we are told that hospitality to strangers is an essential human dignity,” O’Malley said.

O’Malley suggested the White House leaked word of his phone call with Munoz in retaliation for his remarks.

“Whatever the motivation was of the people at the White House that leaked it to you, I’ll leave you to determine,” O’Malley said.

O’Malley said administration officials have stressed that he is open to providing temporary housing in other parts of the state.

“Governor O’Malley and his administration are working cooperatively with federal officials to find suitable locations in Maryland for unaccompanied minors fleeing violence in Central America,” said O’Malley spokeswoman Nina Smith.

“As he has said repeatedly, he believes the priority should be placing children with family members and –if that’s not possible – locating housing that is safe, humane, and non-restrictive,” she added.

The HHS plan stirred up outrage among local elected officials in Maryland, including Rep. Andy Harris, R-Maryland, whose office cited “potential health risks” to the surrounding community.

“Flying them to Maryland only to turn around and fly them back home is nonsensical. Instead, President Obama should immediately return them to their nation of origin,” Harris said in a statement.

HHS has since scuttled the plan for placing the children in western Maryland, an O’Malley official said.

​O’Malley officials pointed to graffiti that was found spray-painted on the site in Westminster, Maryland, last weekend as an indication of some of the hostility the migrant housing plan was generating.

“No illeagles here. No undocumented Democrats,” the graffiti read. A Maryland law enforcement official told the Washington Post the message would be investigated as a hate crime.

In response to O’Malley’s comments, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday some of the unaccompanied minors who have arrived in the United States from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala this year may ultimately be allowed to stay in the country, if they can qualify for asylum.

Migrants from Central America and other non-contiguous nations are granted special legal protections that allow them to plead their case to an immigration court, under a 2008 law designed to prevent human trafficking.

“If an immigration judge determines that they face a credible threat of death upon their return to their home country, then again, I’m not an immigration judge, but it is likely that the immigration judge will find that that person should be granted humanitarian relief,” Earnest said.

O’Malley’s initial comments about the administration’s speedy deportation proposal also ran counter to comments by Clinton, who also said the children should be returned to their home countries as soon as possible.

The Maryland governor said “the law has a different take on it.”

“I believe these kids are refugees. I think there are very few people who have any seasoning or know anything about Central America that would tell you anything other than that Honduras is a fragile and dangerous nation state where gangs have taken over and been recruiting children and shooting children,” O’Malley said.

American principles, O’Malley argued, are at stake.

“I think the most important thing is we remember who we are as Americans, and that we act in accordance with those principles and do right not only by those children but for our own children,” he said.