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Georgia governor promises compassion toward Central American children

Gov. Nathan Deal met with Hispanic community leaders Wednesday and softened his tone concerning the hundreds of unaccompanied Central American children who have been brought to Georgia amid a humanitarian crisis on the U.S-Mexico border.

The Republican governor, who recently fired off a stinging letter to President Barack Obama about the children, told reporters Wednesday that he agrees with the president’s goal of reuniting them with their families.

“We are willing to do our part while they’re here,” said Deal, who is locked in a tight race for the governor’s mansion with Democratic state Sen. Jason Carter. “These are children that, because of their ages and their backgrounds, are vulnerable. We could not imagine some of the background situations that these children come from.”

Thousands of children have crossed the southwest border without their parents this year, fleeing gang violence and poverty in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. After apprehending them, federal authorities are transferring them to the care of adult sponsors in Georgia and other states, where they undergo deportation proceedings in immigration courts.

Deal held his meeting at the state Capitol after drawing fire over his angry letter to Obama. In his letter, Deal said he was shocked to learn the federal government had transferred 1,154 of the children to the care of adult sponsors in Georgia, a state with 9.9 million residents. He mentioned a “surge” in enrollment of Central American students in Georgia’s public schools, which had 1.7 million students last school year. And he complained the state has received a disproportionate share of refugees.

Dismissing the governor’s letter as a political move, critics pointed out that the children at the center of the controversy do not have refugee status.

Deal’s comments also came a day after Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, a Democratic ally, said he wanted to “send a clear signal that the city of Atlanta will do whatever we can do to be accommodating and welcoming to the children.”

Jerry Gonzalez, the executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, was among those who attended Deal’s meeting Wednesday.

“I wish he would have had the meeting before he sent the letter,” Gonzalez said. “But that being said, I heard the governor say that he cares very much about the safety and well-being of the children impacted and recognizes they are a special group of immigrants coming into the U.S.”

Deal issued a statement after his meeting late Wednesday afternoon, saying: “We will show compassion, follow rule of law.”

“I’m concerned about additional burdens being placed on local taxpayers in Georgia,” he said. “But I made this pledge to the group: As a state we will let the federal process work. And during the time it takes to accomplish that, I’m sure Georgians will show their compassion toward these children who have undergone harrowing circumstances.”

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