Unaccompanied children crossing the southern border into the United States is an issue for local jurisdictions across the nation – north, south, east, and west. That fact was very clear at the National Association of Counties’ (NACo) annual conference earlier this week. Rarely does an issue get debated by the full membership during a general session; usually such issues are worked out in NACo’s robust committee structure for inclusion in the NACo legislative package.
Not this time. A somewhat amorphous resolution calling on the Administration and Congress to ensure safe and adequate facilities for the children, as well as working with the countries of origin to address conditions that led to the crisis, was amended from the floor in two important ways: 1) most delegates urged consideration of the issue as a humanitarian crisis rather than simply numbers of children; and 2) the federal government must not put the burden of care (especially costs) on counties. At one point, it appeared that a lengthy roll call vote (we’d already had one on another issue) would be demanded, but cooler heads prevailed and the voice vote indicated strong support for the amended version.
All the county officials I talked with are in the same situation we face in this region. The failure of the federal government to address comprehensive immigration reform puts at grave risk already over-burdened, and underfunded, local human services systems that do not have the capacity to absorb tens-of-thousands of children whose medical, educational, social, and cultural needs are unknown. It truly is a humanitarian crisis.
NACo’s annual conference provides an opportunity for thousands of local elected officials to share with each other successes, challenges, and best practices. Issues may center around budgets, but many also concern relationships with federal government agencies – the Environmental Protection Agency, the Corps of Engineers, and Bureau of Land Management are a few. Annual awards also are distributed, and Fairfax County nearly always earns bragging rights. This year was no exception. The county won a Best Achievement Award in the Risk Management category for its program to reduce preventable accidents and injuries among county staff. Fairfax also placed third in the Digital Counties Survey for jurisdictions above 500,000 population. It was a pleasure for me to accept those awards on behalf of the county.
The NACo conference was held in New Orleans, and it was interesting to compare the city pre- and post-Katrina. The city still reflects its hundreds-of-years of history, but I noticed that many buildings, especially the hotels, are in better shape now, and the walkability of the area has improved. Canal Street has more sculpture, and more plantings, than the last time I was there. A giant steel sunflower was juxtaposed with four large incised concrete spheres, each with just a hint of color, near the convention center. Outdoor public art can create a sense of place, as well as a variety of opinions, just as the NACo conference in New Orleans demonstrated.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at [email protected]