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LAWTON, Okla. — Fred Fitch, the three-term mayor of this small city in Southern Oklahoma, has a lot of questions about the 1,200 undocumented immigrant children who arrived at the Fort Sill Army base just north of town last month. He’s a friendly, seemingly reasonable guy, but on a recent Wednesday afternoon, he couldn’t help but indulge in a little gossip about the hottest topic in Lawton.
“Where are these kids getting the money to get to the U.S. border?” he asked in an interview in his loudly decorated office in City Hall, complete with leopard-print couch and shag carpet. “We know that the United States is saturated with drug cartel people — are they the sponsors?”
Fitch, who has a shock of white hair atop a deeply tanned face, adjusts his neon-green tie as he chats about the rumors that are swirling around the kids in Fort Sill. He says he's heard that many are carrying diseases. “You won’t believe the amount of drugs [they’re buying from pharmacies],” Fitch said. “Scabies, head lice — all these kinds of things running rampant in these installations.”
And the 67-year-old mayor, who suffered a heart attack while giving a speech last year but didn’t miss a day of work, doesn’t believe the Obama administration’s claim that most of the children eventually will be deported when they turn up for their hearings at backlogged immigration courts around the country. In fact, he thinks it could be even worse than that.
“My personal opinion is that as soon as they turn 18, they’ll be registered Democrat,” Fitch said, laughing.
“There’s just too many things that don’t add up,” the mayor mused.
‘NO ILLEAGLES HERE’
Fitch is not the only local official around the country who is balking at the Obama administration’s $3.7 billion plan to deal with the flood of child migrants from Central America. Nearly 90,000 of the children are expected to arrive without parents or guardians at the border by then end of this fiscal year in September, and a 2008 anti-trafficking law requires the government to detain minors and then place them with trusted guardians while they await full immigration hearings — which can take years.
Towns in Texas, Virginia, California, Illinois and other states have put up obstacles in the federal government’s way, saying they don’t want shelters for the children built there. Some of the locals are raising reasonable concerns about the capacity of their town or city to care for the kids and whether allowing them to stay and face trial in the country will encourage more illegal immigration. But other concerns are merely dressed-up conspiracy theories and old-fashioned xenophobia.
Paranoia — especially when it comes to outsiders and foreigners — has a storied history in American politics on both the right and left, and elected officials have been exploiting that to get votes or further their own policy agendas for hundreds of years. (In the 1800s, a sizable group of people believed that allowing Catholics to settle the West along with Protestants would clear the way for the Pope to organize a mass rebellion and slaughter all the heretics, for example.)
These rumors — that the kids carry dangerous diseases, or are secret agents for drug cartels, or will quickly be given citizenship en masse by President Barack Obama — have contributed to hostility against a vulnerable group of young people fleeing violence in their home countries. Earlier this week, an empty Army Reserve warehouse that was being considered for a children’s shelter in Maryland was spray-painted by an anonymous malcontent with the message “NO ILLEAGLES [sic] HERE. NO UNDOCUMENTED DEMOCRATS.”
The often bitter debate over illegal immigration is new for Fitch and many of his constituents in Lawton. The Great Plains town is hundreds of miles from the southern border, and only 12 percent of Lawtonites identify as Hispanic. But the Obama administration has been pushing the young undocumented kids further into the interior as the flood of migrants has strained the existing shelter system nearer to the border. Fort Sill is one of three military bases the government asked to temporarily help house the children as it places them with relatives or sponsors all around the country who are then supposed to get them to show up at court hearings.
The arrival of the kids rocked the town, dominating local news reports, and speculation about them has run rampant. Though the city has swelled to 100,000 residents over the years, Lawton is close enough to its country roots that you still sometimes see a tractor driving slowly down the main drag of Cache Road, backing up traffic by the Dollar Store or the Golden Corral.
“Everybody’s talking about it,” said Gordon Foster, a nursing professor and 30-year resident of Lawton who was enjoying breakfast at McDonald's last week.
“There’s something going on that we don’t know about,” said Jerry Price, 88, on his way to Jimmy’s Egg diner for lunch. “Why are they here?”
Price, a veteran, also questioned the amount of money President Obama asked for from Congress to deal with the crisis — $3.7 billion. “It don’t take that much to take care of those kids,” he said.
Fitch says a lack of communication from the federal government has fueled suspicions in Lawton. He says he was not informed by the government that the Army base would house the unaccompanied minors and is miffed that he has to get his information about what’s going on with the kids from local news sources. Reporters weren’t allowed to tour the facility for weeks after the kids first arrived.
“If they don’t tell you anything, you assume the worst,” Fitch said.
FROM EBOLA TO MS-13
There are plenty of legitimate concerns about the flood of children from Central America showing up without parents at the southern border. Fitch is worried about whether schools can handle an influx of students with special language and other needs. (“Are these children going to be dumped out in Lawton?” he worries.) Others have made the point that allowing the children to face immigration trials in the U.S. may encourage more to leave their families behind and make the dangerous journey to the border.
But some of the most often voiced concerns about the migrant children are false, though they’ve managed to substantially affect the political debate around the fate of the children. For example, one widely repeated claim is that many of the children are carrying deadly communicable diseases. Some politicians who have seized on this rumor are pushing for faster deportations of not only these children but also other immigrants who have been residing in the United States for a long time without authorization.
“Reports of illegal immigrants carrying deadly diseases such as swine flu, dengue fever, Ebola virus and tuberculosis are particularly concerning,” wrote Rep. Phil Gingrey, a Georgia Republican, in a letter to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) last week. “As the unaccompanied children continue to be transported to shelters around the country on commercial airlines and other forms of transportation, I have serious concerns that the diseases carried by these children may begin to spread too rapidly to control.”
Fearing their diseases, the city council of League City, Texas, voted to ban any of the Central American immigrants from entering their town. The organizer of a massive protest to block Border Patrol buses carrying immigrant children in Murrieta, Calif., told Sean Hannity he was motivated to action because his granddaughter was diagnosed with “hand and foot disease,” which he believed was a result of illegal immigration. Fears of illness have been blown up on right-wing blogs, with one author asking if the children constitute a “biological attack on the homeland.”
But fears stirred up by Gingrey, a retired physician, appear to be unwarranted. Ebola does not exist in Latin America; dengue is spread by mosquito bite and not by people; and swine flu strains are now included in the common flu shot. Migrants are screened for tuberculosis, according to Human Health and Services (HHS) spokesman Kenneth Wolfe, and can be treated and quarantined if they have it. They are also given any vaccinations they haven’t received already. (Central American countries actually have a higher vaccination rate for measles than the U.S.)
Border Patrol agents, mostly quoted anonymously, are often the source of rumors about the flood of migrant children, according to Frank Sharry, founder of the immigration advocacy group America’s Voice. One agent in San Diego expressed his fears of disease to a local news station. And the conservative website Townhall quoted an anonymous Border Patrol agent saying that some of the detained children appeared to have been involved with the Central American gang MS-13. Rep. Rich Nugent of Florida said earlier this week that “a lot” of the children are “gang members,” without citing any source for that claim. In fact, many children are fleeing Central American countries because gangs have wrested control of society and force young boys to either join or die. As to Fitch’s concern that the children could be placed with gang members in the United States while they await their immigration hearing, HHS says children will only be placed with a sponsor who passes a background check.
Some see these rumors as a way to stir up fears against a vulnerable population of children — a group that normally would evoke sympathy, not terror. Painting them as tiny disease-ridden gangbangers makes it easier to support the position that they should be immediately deported en masse, instead of given a chance to argue for asylum or other legal protections at their court hearings. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson testified last week that the majority of the children will be sent home eventually by the court system, but the reality is that they could end up staying here for years in the meantime, and some will never show up for their hearings.
“This kind of rhetoric really dehumanizes the children coming over the border,” said Marilyn Mayo, co-director of the Center on Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League. “The fear mongering has just gotten more and more intense.”
Meanwhile, the 12- to 17-year-old migrants at the center of so much speculation in Lawton spend their days in the fenced and guarded Army base drawing pictures, taking English and math classes, and sleeping head to toe in tiny cots, just like a young recruit would in the past. Some drew crayon pictures of their versions of the American dream — one childish drawing showed a brown schoolhouse with an American flag flying on top — that decorate the walls of their barracks.
“Your heart just breaks for them,” Fitch said.
But he added that he doesn’t see an end in sight. “As soon as 100 leave, there’ll be another 100 in here.”