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Feds' immigrant figures may not give full story

Published: Friday, July 25, 2014 4:09 p.m. CDT

CHICAGO (AP) — Recent data released by the federal government may reflect only a fraction of how many unaccompanied children apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border are in Illinois, with state officials saying hundreds more could be at shelters.

In a state-by-state list made public Thursday, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families said 305 children were released to Illinois sponsors from Jan. 1 through July 7 of this year. However, Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk's office said Friday that federal data given to his office this month shows that another 429 children were at Illinois shelters as of July 8.

Kirk's office said Friday that the number of children at the shelters fluctuates. A message left for a federal health and human services spokesman wasn't immediately returned.

Illinois is prepared to "help in whatever way necessary," Gov. Pat Quinn said Friday. His comment comes as governors in some other states, including Idaho, have asked federal officials not to send any of the children.

"We have a responsibility to ensure all children are treated with respect, compassion and dignity," the Chicago Democrat said in a statement. "My administration will continue to discuss this important subject with other federal, state and local elected officials."

The details of how and where the children are kept in Illinois as they await immigration proceedings are sparse.

The U.S. faces a sharp rise in unaccompanied minors who have been fleeing violence in Central America and crossing into the U.S. because they believe they will be allowed to stay.

The children are first held at government shelters where they undergo medical exams and are then placed with sponsors as they go through deportation proceedings. Often, sponsors — who must undergo background checks — are family members or family friends and are responsible for making sure a child shows up for court.

Overall, 30,340 unaccompanied children have been released to sponsors this year.

For years, the Chicago-based Heartland Alliance has contracted with the federal government to run shelters and legal services for the children. The group has hundreds of beds available in the Chicago area, but doesn't make shelter locations public for safety and privacy reasons. A spokeswoman for the group didn't immediately comment Friday.

Compared to other populous states, Illinois has a smaller number of unaccompanied minors.

The states with the most immigrant children have established central American communities — Texas had the most released to sponsors with 4,280, followed by New York, Florida and California, according to the federal data.

The largest contingent of Illinois' immigrant population comes from Mexico, followed by Poland and India, according to Illinois' Office of New Americans Policy and Advocacy. However, Cook County does have one of the largest populations of Guatemalan immigrants, after Los Angeles and Harris Counties in California, according to an analysis of Census data.

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