COLUMBIA - Gov. Nikki Haley said it's wrong for the federal government to expect states to accept unattended children who are illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border while providing no information on them.
"We do care about these children. We do want them to be safe. But we also have our own children to take care of," she said Thursday evening during a panel discussion of Republican governors at the Aspen Institute in Colorado.
"We've got our foster children in every one of our states and we are trying to balance a budget," she said. "And because they won't do the one basic thing of securing our border, we are now taking on additional children. It's just wrong. It's wrong. And when we ask who these children are or where they are, Secretary Johnson said we can't tell you because of privacy issues."
But a South Carolina advocate for the poor said it's never wrong to protect children who are fleeing danger.
Haley, whose parents emigrated from India, said America is great because of legal immigrants like them.
"Secure our border and restore the rule of law, and in so doing, prevent untold thousands of additional children from enduring what is undoubtedly a horrifying ordeal," she wrote in a July 17 letter to U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.
Last week, Haley said Johnson assured her there are no shelters for the children in South Carolina, on military bases or otherwise. Her spokesman said Friday she intends to keep it that way.
Federal data released Thursday showed 350 children were released to a family member or other sponsor in South Carolina from Jan. 1 through July 7, accounting for 1 percent of the 30,340 children who were released nationwide to someone whose information was found on them.
"Now that we know there are some children being placed with sponsors in South Carolina, we will work with Homeland Security, understand our options, and make sure that we are doing everything we can to protect our state," said Haley spokesman Doug Mayer.
The U.S. has been grappling with more than 57,000 children who have entered the U.S. illegally since Oct. 1, mostly from three Central American countries: Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. The children are fleeing violence in their home countries and crossing into the U.S. because they believe they will be allowed to stay. Children are placed in government shelters and then released to sponsors while they go through deportation proceedings. Federal officials told governors that sponsors are not asked if they are in the country legally.
"The kids have a phone number in their pocket or there's something stitched on the back of their pants," Haley said at the Aspen Institute. "But this undocumented child is going with this undocumented person in my state - that you tell me you can't find. This is a problem."
Haley said she argued with Johnson that the placements cost the state nothing.
Sue Berkowitz, director of the Appleseed Legal Justice Center, said it shouldn't be a monetary decision.
"These kids are in danger. These are kids who are fleeing terrible conditions of violence in their country," she said. "It's heartbreaking. We all have to care. It's not all about dollars and cents."