- Associated Press - Friday, July 18, 2014

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Advocates for the unaccompanied immigrant children who were placed in Nebraska said Friday that Gov. Dave Heineman’s recent comments about the crisis could hurt the Republican Party’s efforts to win Hispanic voters.

The advocates accused Heineman and members of Nebraska’s congressional delegation of politicizing what they described as a humanitarian crisis involving children from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Tens of thousands of unaccompanied children have entered the country at the Mexican border, and federal officials say more than 200 are in Nebraska.

Heineman, a Republican, and four members of Nebraska’s all-Republican congressional delegation sent a letter to the federal government this week asking for the children’s identities and whereabouts. The letter was signed by U.S. Sens. Deb Fischer and Mike Johanns, and Reps. Adrian Smith and Lee Terry.

The governor said Thursday he wants to ensure that people in the country illegally aren’t receiving state or federal benefits, and he voiced concerns about potential health risks from children carrying infectious diseases. The letter from Heineman and the delegation said the children should be treated humanely, but returned to their home countries.

The advocates held a news conference at the Capitol on Friday with longtime state Sen. Ernie Chambers, of Omaha, to call for compassion for the children.

Lincoln immigration attorney Shirl Mora James said federal law protects the children’s privacy. She dismissed the governor’s concerns about tax money as a “red herring,” saying the federal government already provides some funding to care for them and send them to schools.

Ben Salazar, a Latino activist from Omaha, said the letter and the governor’s follow-up comments could drive Nebraska’s fast-growing Hispanic population away from Republicans. More than 9 percent of the state’s population was identified as Hispanic or Latino in the 2010 Census.

“This is a heck of an unusual campaign with which to reach out to the Hispanic community,” Salazar said. “It’s going to come back and slap them in the face.”

Nebraska Democratic Party executive director Dan Marvin said the governor and delegation are “politicizing a refugee crisis and turning it into an immigration issue.”

Yolanda Chavez Nuncio, a former Grand Island elementary school principal, said she was embarrassed by the recent comments from state officials about children “who are traveling from some of the most horrific conditions in the world.” Some of the children have arrived in Nebraska telling stories about drugs and violence.

In a statement Friday, Heineman said the advocates were trying to divert attention from the fact that the children entered the country illegally.

“This is an issue of transparency and protecting the integrity of taxpayer funded benefits,” he said. “The state of Nebraska can’t ensure that any illegal individual is not getting taxpayer funded benefits if we don’t know who they are.”

Immigration remains a fiercely debated topic in Nebraska, which is now the nation’s only state to deny driver’s licenses to youths who were brought into the country illegally as children, but were allowed to stay under an Obama administration program. Two years ago, Nebraska lawmakers overrode Heineman’s veto of a bill that offered state-funded prenatal care benefits to women in the country illegally. The city of Fremont has gained national attention because of an ordinance that bans renting homes to immigrants in the U.S. illegally.