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Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, Rep. Mike Turner Face Off Over Immigration

The mayor says the city's education initiative is showing signs of early success in helping to prepare young people for higher education and entering the workforce.
Lewis Wallace

A feud is unfolding over whether Dayton should take in immigrant children from Central America who have been crossing the border by the tens of thousands in recent months.

Democratic Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley is facing off against Congressman Mike Turner and a group of local politicians, who penned a letter Sunday to President Barack Obama voicing their disagreement with Whaley’s stance.

Whaley says the numbers of young children coming into the U.S. alone from central America constitute a humanitarian crisis, and when the federal government contacted her in early July about potentially housing some of the children temporarily, she didn’t hesitate.

“These are children, and they need to be treated humanely while they’re on American soil and while we go through the due process with them,” she said Monday. Last week she faced protests from activists, but says she’s heard good feedback, too, as many in Dayton have been working for years to represent the city as immigrant-friendly.

“We’ve received great response from the community,” she said. “As citizens of Dayton, people are literally offering to open up their houses, nurses asking how they can help, schools saying they want to do their part.” Mayor Whaley refers to the children as refugees, as many of them are fleeing violence, gangs and unsafe conditions in their home countries, but they have to go before a judge before that status is legally determined. Many do so without legal representation.

Reportedly, some of the children also face abuse and violence on this side of the border. 

A group of Republicans including all three Greene County commissioners, Centerville Mayor Mark Kingseed, Montgomery County Sheriff Phil Plummer, Beavercreek Mayor Brian Jarvis and U.S. Representative Mike Turner sent a letter to President Obama Sunday to say Mayor Whaley doesn’t represent the region.

“We’re a nation of immigrants, however this has now jumped that line clearly into illegal immigrants,” said Jarvis in an interview. He says he doesn’t believe most of the children could be considered refugees, and that it’s important to distinguish immigrants who are here legally.

The letter expresses concerns that the region can’t afford to provide for the kids, even temporarily. “The cost of providing for these illegal immigrants, whether in the form of law enforcement, education, healthcare and housing will have a severe negative impact on our ability to continue providing basic services to our community.”

Congressman Turner, who represents Dayton and Wright-Patterson Air Force base and is the former mayor of Dayton, put out a release saying “Mayor Whaley does not have the authority, the resources or the support to speak on behalf of Dayton and the surrounding communities.”

Other Dayton residents are beginning to weigh on in the issue: On Monday afternoon, a group of faith leaders put out a release saying Rep. Turner doesn't represent them. Reverend Dr. Perry Henderson of the Corinthian Baptist Church wrote, "if sending desperate, vulnerable children back into the arms of murderous gangs and human traffickers isn't a sin, I don't know what is. Our faith tells us that we must not turn our back on these children of God." 

Grace United Methodist Church also signed on to the statement, which came from a group called Faith in Public Life. 

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says its shelters are overcrowded, and it’s offering funds for organizations who open up space. Catholic Charities in Cincinnati has applied for a grant. HHS also has some funds available to support temporary shelters, which it says house the kids for an average of 35 days before they are either placed with a family or able to go to trial.

Mayor Whaley says she hasn’t heard back from HHS about next steps for hosting the children, and she’s not sure where they would stay in Dayton or what the logistics of it would be.

Meanwhile, a request from the president for additional funds from Congress to cover costs for healthcare, education and lawyers for the kids has little chance of passing.

President Obama recently requested $3.7 billion from Congress to address the crisis and provide for shelter, education and legal representation for the kids, but Congress has been unable to agree on a bill.

Both Mayor Whaley and Mayor Jarvis of Beavercreek said the responsibility is ultimately on the federal government to address the issue, and that it will require cooperation in both houses of Congress. Turner’s office was not able to provide a response by press time.

Lewis Wallace is WYSO's economics reporter and substitute morning host. Follow him @lewispants.