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It’s August in the capital, quiet enough for scapegoats to roam freely. In fact, the mayor of Lynn, Mass., came for a visit on Wednesday and released a few of this breed in the heart of downtown, at the National Press Club. Hosted by a hard-line immigration group, the mayor, Judith Flanagan Kennedy, told an alarming tale about how unaccompanied minors emigrating illegally from Guatemala have caused havoc in her fair burg.
“The vast majority of them were claiming to be between 14 and 17 years old, but there were people with graying temples, hair around the temples, there were people with more wrinkles than I have around the eyes,” said Kennedy. “A lot of them,” she added, “were illiterate not only in English but also in Spanish and spoke a tribal dialect, a mountain dialect.”
The mayor said the number of “out of country” students enrolling in Lynn’s schools leaped from 54 in 2010-11 to 329 in 2011-12, 421 in 2012-13 and 538 in 2013-14. Last school year, 101 unaccompanied minors from Guatemala were in the ninth grade in Lynn, she said.
The surge — which the Republican mayor blames on federal policy under the Obama administration — has overwhelmed Lynn’s public health and trash-collection infrastructure, and huge education costs have caused her to eliminate a community policing program. “I had a really solid financial backing for the city and then in the last couple of years it has all fallen apart,” she said, bringing her to the “breaking point.”
But upon closer inspection, Kennedy’s tale of woe doesn’t quite add up. Those kids with wrinkles and gray hair? She admitted she hadn’t seen them herself. And the “surge” of unaccompanied minors Kennedy has felt? It predates the actual surge at the border, which has been building for a couple of years but exploded only in 2014.
The Department of Health and Human Services, which handles the placement of unaccompanied minors, says 135 unaccompanied Guatemalan children were placed this year through July 31 in Lynn, a city of 90,000 with a sizable Guatemalan population. Tallies weren’t kept for previous years, but the figures probably were a fraction of the current level — not exactly enough to cause mayhem in Lynn’s schools, which have 13,500 kids enrolled, or to swamp trash collection.
Of those Guatemalan children who have come to Lynn, the mayor acknowledged, she doesn’t know “how many are refugees, how many are illegal immigrants including unaccompanied minors, and how many arrived legally.” That’s an important distinction, because what’s going on in the city appears to have less to do with illegal immigration and the current border crisis than with long-term patterns of legal migration, which are economically beneficial.
Kennedy admitted that Lynn was struggling to begin with (81 percent of the children in its schools receive subsidized lunches), and she noted that the influx of immigrants has had “a positive impact on the prices of our rental units and the availability of our rental units. Especially the ones in the desirable section of town, the prices have gone to the point where there are bidding wars. … So I guess in that way there’s a perverse positive effect on economic development.”
Nothing perverse about it, Mayor. Some of Lynn’s immigrants are minors who came illegally, and others are refugees from countries outside Central America. Many more — the ones who bid up rents — probably have come legally to join the city’s already thriving Guatemalan community.
That’s not the message Kennedy’s hosts had in mind.
The Center for Immigration Studies, which pushes for stricter immigration controls, advertised the meeting as a way to demonstrate how American towns far from the border are dealing “with this growing surge of Central American illegal immigrants, many of them ostensibly unaccompanied” minors, according to Mark Krikorian, the group’s director.
Kennedy said she had noticed the increasing arrivals of Guatemalans in 2012 but “suffered in silence” until recently, when the media focused on the border crisis. “I decided when I saw these stories were becoming national news to speak out about it,” she said.
This sounds a bit opportunistic, particularly because Lynn’s situation has little to do with the current border crisis. She also sounds a bit cold when complaining that “my health department” administered 159 vaccinations in July. In July 2011, it was 11. Aren’t more vaccinations a good thing?
“Speaking out about this, I have been called a racist,” Kennedy said. “I have been called a hater. That is not the case.”
No. She is just a humble goatherd.
DANA MILBANK is a political reporter for The Washington Post and has authored two books on national political campaigns and the national political parties.