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Gov. Noem says state won’t accept ‘illegal immigrants’

Gov. Noem

Gov. Kristi Noem speaking at a recent press conference in Pierre.

Gov. Kristi Noem said Wednesday that South Dakota won’t accept “illegal immigrants” as the president has been asking some governors to help house migrant children.

“South Dakota won't be taking any illegal immigrants that the Biden Administration wants to relocate. My message to illegal immigrants ... call me when you're an American,” she tweeted.

Noem made her tweet even though she is not one of the governors President Joe Biden has reached out to for assistance. 

“We have not received any formal requests from the Biden administration at this time,” spokesman Ian Fury told the Journal. “Governor Noem is sending the message that if we receive any such request, it will be denied.”

Fury did not respond when asked what kind of request Noem was referring to, and why she would reject it. However the only active requests that appear to be happening is for states to help house migrant children, not adults. 

South Dakota Voices for Peace, the only nonprofit in the state providing legal services to migrant minors living with sponsors, criticized Noem’s tweet. 

“South Dakota Governor’s tweet is un-American, racist and heartless. Her pattern of racism and bigotry towards immigrant communities is abhorrent,” the group’s executive director and attorney Taneeza Islam said in a news release. “She is pandering to her base to get some likes on Twitter, on the backs of innocent and extremely vulnerable children.”

Noem “failed to mention that the federal government requested that states provide shelter to unaccompanied immigrant children who are coming to our borders to seek refuge from violence such as rape, extortion, and abuse, as permitted by U.S. and international law,” the release says.

Nearly 172,000 migrants crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in March, the most in 15 years, according to an April 8 NPR story. This included nearly 19,000 unaccompanied minors, the most ever recorded in a month period.

Most adults are being deported due to a COVID-19 order implemented under President Donald Trump, but the Biden administration is struggling to house and process children in a humane and timely manner. Photos show that children have been sleeping on cots and under foil blankets in crowded facilities along the border.

Republicans, including Sen. John Thune who visited the border along the Rio Grande in Texas, are blaming the surge on Biden, saying his policies are encouraging migrants to come to the U.S and that a complete wall and more enforcement are needed. 

Biden and other Democrats say the administration is dealing with a backlog due to COVID-19 and from the Trump administration that restricted and slowed down entry and processing and made asylum seekers wait in Mexico. They also point out the border regularly experiences migration surges as well as more quiet times. 

The Washington Post reported March 20 that Customs and Border Protection considered flying and housing migrants to states along the Canadian border to help speed up processing but CBP told Fox News three day later that it's nixed that plan for now. 

Biden has, however, requested that some states open state-run facilities and services to unaccompanied migrant children. The Iowa and Nebraska governors both said they rejected such requests after being contacted by the federal government.

Most children arrive at the border by presenting themselves to CBP officers at ports of entry, Islam told the Journal. However children and adults that cross between the ports are allowed to ask for asylum and such a crossing would not be illegal.

No matter where minors cross, Islam said, they receive special protections since they are children and much of their care is handled through Office of Refugee Resettlement at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

When children cross the border they are put in a detention center where they are supposed be housed for no more than 20 days until ORR finds a sponsor for them, she said. A sponsor is usually a relative or close family friend. Those without a sponsor will be placed in shelters.

There are then multiple routes for a child to attempt to gain legal status and eventually citizenship, a process that can take up to 10 years, Islam said. Some children gain this status while others are deported.

South Dakota Voices for Peace represents migrant children living with sponsors in South Dakota when they go to immigration court in Minnesota. The children do not have a right to a lawyer but having one greatly increases their chance of gaining legal status, Islam said.

532 unaccompanied immigrant children were released to sponsors living in South Dakota between October 2014 and February 2021, according to the ORR. Gov. Noem does not have the power to prevent the ORR and sponsors from bringing and hosting migrant children.

There were about 5,000 unauthorized immigrants living in South Dakota in 2016, according to a February 2019 study by the Pew Research Center.

“In South Dakota, immigrants hold many different statuses; there are visa holders, lawful permanent residents, international students, visitors, U.S. citizens, agricultural workers, doctors and scientists, and those with no documented status,” South Dakota Voices for Peace said in its email. “Immigrants in SD are our essential workers. During the COVID-19 pandemic they are the workers who fueled our agricultural economy and took care of our dying community members.”​

— Contact Arielle Zionts at arielle.zionts@rapidcityjournal.com

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