- Associated Press - Friday, July 25, 2014

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) - Several New Jersey organizations are assisting an estimated 1,500 unaccompanied immigrant children who have been picked up crossing the United States’ southern border in recent months.

The Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families announced Thursday that 1,504 unaccompanied children have been placed in New Jersey from Jan. 1 through July 7. A total of 30,340 have been placed nationwide.

Immigration advocacy groups who have been assisting the children, including Catholic Charities and the American Friends Service Committee, say the majority of placements in New Jersey have been with the parents or relatives of the children.

Unaccompanied minors intercepted by U.S. immigration officials at the border are released from federal detention into the care of a relative or a guardian who passes a required screening process and are charged with making sure they attend immigration proceedings, according to Jacqueline Stabnow, a staff attorney with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Newark.

Children who do not have an approved relative or guardian generally remain in federal custody. Stabnow’s organization and others are working to provide representation to the children in immigration courts already facing major backlogs.

Republican Gov. Chris Christie said earlier this week he had not received any notice from federal officials about children being placed in the state. At a campaign appearance Friday in Chicago with Republican Illinois gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner, Christie reiterated his anger at not being notified and accused President Barack Obama’s administration of hiding the information from governors as to how many children were being placed in their states.

He called the administration’s handling of the situation “a monumental failure, beginning with their failure to secure our borders.”

“This president has now had six years to secure our borders and he hasn’t done it,” Christie said.

A message left after business hours for the Department of Health and Human Services, which is overseeing the placements, was not immediately returned.

Elissa Steglich, legal services director for American Friends Service Committee, said the current policies and procedures for children in federal custody have been in place since the mid-1990s, and the numbers of unaccompanied minors fleeing violence in Central American countries have been increasing over the course of several years.

Most procedures related to children, including New Jersey’s child welfare system, prioritize family reunification and family relationships, regardless of immigration status, over keeping children in detention, Steglich said.

“I think this is a child welfare issue, not an immigration one,” Steglich said. “These are children in crisis, being pushed from their homes by violence and instability, and are seeking safe and stable homes, and we should be proud that New Jersey is offering them protection.”

Gayle Kesselman, president of New Jersey Citizens for Immigration Control says children crossing the border alone should not be considered refugees and should be sent back to their countries “as quickly, efficiently and humanely as possible.”