Lehigh Valley

Protesters spar over immigration crisis

Kidspeace in Bethlehem was target of Lehigh Valley Tea Party

Dueling protests over immigration

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - A Lehigh Valley non-profit became the latest immigration battleground Sunday, as protesters and opponents faced-off in a tense series of protests along a busy street.

Roughly 80 members of the Lehigh Valley Tea Party protested outside KidsPeace, a Salisbury Township, Lehigh County, group that temporarily houses undocumented children for the federal government. 

In the past two months, more than 50,000 unaccompanied kids have flooded across the Mexican border, taking advantage of a Bush-era law allowing Central and South American children to stay in the country while they request asylum hearings.

"The federal resources are completely overwhelmed," said Allentown immigration attorney Kevin Santos, who has represented children in such proceedings.

Similar protests have occurred across the country in the past few days.

"We want those children back with their parents where they belong," said local protester Paul Saunders.  "Their parents need to make their countries safe for them to be in those countries."

A smaller group of counter-protesters picketed across the street.

"We need to care about all children, no matter how they get here," said Mary Ann Anthony.

A 2008 law, designed to prevent child trafficking, requires children from countries other than Mexico to be held in the United States until they can get an asylum hearing.  KidsPeace receives federal grants to temporarily house up to 72 children, under a contract with the federal government.

After a few days or weeks, most undocumented children will live with relatives in the U.S. while waiting for their hearings.

"A lot of them could be here for two or three years, and my call is about 80 percent of them -- under the current law, the way it's structured -- they'll be able to stay," said Santos, who noted that there are only 200 immigration judges across the U.S.

"They're here for a couple of days and then they disappear into the community," said protester Tony Simao.  "They're going to go to our local schools.  They're going to go to our local hospitals.  Who pays for that?  It's the local taxpayers."

Counter-protesters insisted the children deserve a safe place to stay while their legal status is pending.

"I think there's a lot of misinformation," said Lori McFarland.  "This isn't anything permanent."

Emotions became heated, with both sides occasionally taunting each other from across the street.

"It seems like reason has sort of gone out the window with this issue," said Santos.

Santos said protesters do have valid concerns.  He worries that street gangs like MS-13 could begin recruiting the flood of immigrant children.

"These are children," he said.  "[We] can't simply just turn them away, but it's clear that the current immigration process is not working."

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