Pittsburgh-area Congressman tours U.S. Mexico border

PITTSBURGH — Butler-area Congressman Mike Kelly (R, 16th District) toured the U.S. Mexico border Tuesday with other GOP lawmakers from the region to learn more about the recent surge in illegal immigration.

“We’re in what they call the Rio Grande Valley sector, where there is a heavy inflow of unaccompanied children,” Kelly said, pointing to the wide river where many undocumented immigrants cross into the United States.

Kelly was accompanied on the trip by Ohio Congressmen Troy Balderson (R, 12TH District ) and Bill Johnson (R, 6th District). Kelly spoke exclusively with Channel 11′s Angie Moreschi after touring facilities in Donna and McAllen, Texas.

“We’re talking to border agents. We’re talking to HHS, and we’re talking to anybody who’s involved in this whole operation,” Kelly said.

Erie Emergency Intake Center

Kelly said he decided to go on a fact-finding mission to the border after an emergency intake shelter for unaccompanied minor children opened in Erie, which is in his district. The facility housed about 150 children who crossed the southern U.S. border. It shut down abruptly just two weeks later, with little information released about it.

“These children showed up in Erie. They were there for a very short time. Once we visited, within 24 hours that site was abandoned, closed down. All the children were gone. All the staff was gone,” he said.

Kelly visited the shelter the day before it closed and said he discovered that 28 of the children had tested positive for COVID-19.

“If these children have COVID, then we should know about it before they come to our communities. We should know that they have received treatment and that they’re okay,” he said.

Kelly said he tried to get more information from the federal Department of Health and Human Services about future plans for the Erie location and why it closed down so quickly, but was unsuccessful. That was when he decided to go to the border looking for answers.

Touring Border Facilities

Kelly toured this same intake facility in Donna, Texas, where U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas took video showing severely overcrowded conditions, as an administration employee tried to stop him.

Kelly said he and his staff were prohibited from taking pictures during the tour, but that the facility was much less crowded compared to Cruz’s video.

“The numbers in these little pods have been reduced greatly. Some of the children have already been moved around to these emergency intake sites,” he said.

Despite talking with U.S. Customs and Border Protection and HHS while touring the border, Kelly said he was unable to get more information on what happened at Erie Emergency Intake Center or whether it will reopen in the future.

“We have the most welcoming hearts in the world, but we also, in my position, have a tremendous responsibility to the 705,687 people in Pennsylvania’s 16th Congressional District to see what is going on in their hometown,” he said. “If they do come to our community, who is going to take care of them? How are we going to absorb them into our towns?”

Families or foster care

Pittsburgh immigration attorney Samantha Tamburro helps undocumented immigrants and unaccompanied minors gain legal status in the U.S. She’s also been a foster parent for many years caring for unaccompanied minors who cross the border.

Tamburro talked with Channel 11 about the process of what happens when children leave the intake centers. She was not aware of the situation at the Erie facility, but has worked with Holy Family in Pittsburgh, which has housed undocumented migrant children for years, including during the recent surge at the border.

“Ultimately, the goal is to get them out of that living situation and into a more permanent place,” she said. “The majority were probably released to family members.”

Tamburro said the process of reuniting children can take time because those in the home have to pass a background check.

“Whether they are undocumented or not, a family member still has to show that they have no record of child abuse or any issue that would be a concern to have a child placed in their home.”

When that process is completed, a child can be reunited with a family member.

“It doesn’t necessarily have to be their parent,” she said. “It could be an uncle or a cousin.”