Hugh McQuaid Photo

Despite public backlash, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said Friday his administration made the right call when it declined a federal request to house thousands of immigrant children in a state facility.

The Democratic governor, who is seeking re-election in November, said he did not believe the immigration issue poses a political problem for him.

“Putting children in buildings that have mold, asbestos, and lead would be a far bigger problem,” he told reporters at a press conference following a meeting of the state Bond Commission.

Earlier this month, Malloy denied a federal request to house as many as 2,000 migrant children from Central America in a vacant section of the Southbury Training School.

The administration argued the space was unsuitable but the decision has since sparked a protest in New Haven, a letter from the legislature’s largely-Democratic Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, as well as criticisms from two perspective Republican challengers.

Malloy said he welcomes the argument.

“If I have a [political] problem, and it’s from someone who wants to institutionalize children, it’s a problem I’m willing to have,” Malloy said.

The governor frames the issue as a choice between placing children with family members or “warehousing” them in state institutions. So far, the federal government has placed 325 children in family settings in Connecticut. That number is significantly less than the number they had hoped to place at Southbury, but Malloy insisted it is the better option.

The governor compared the process to the state Department of Children and Families efforts to place more children with family members.

“We know that when a child is placed with a family member, temporarily or long term, they do better… The idea that we would not exhaust every opportunity to do that, made no sense to me at the very outset,” he said.

Others have framed the issue on different terms. Republican gubernatorial candidate John McKinney has suggested the governor’s denial of the federal request was an election year political calculation. McKinney has pointed to the Malloy’s support of policies giving undocumented residents drivers licenses and better access to higher education.

“Now on the eve of an election, he makes a political decision at the height of hypocrisy to potentially abandon these kids,” McKinney said during a recent debate.

Malloy said the decision not to place children in a state institution was not at odds with his support of immigration issues. He said most people agree with him when asked to choose between institutional placement or family placement.

“My position is perfectly clear,” he said. “In fact, I’ve been fighting a long-term cause in my own state to make sure that children who are within our foster care [system] are actually placed with family members. Why would I advocate anything differently for any other children?”

During a protest this week in New Haven, demonstrators called on Malloy to utilize New Haven’s former Gateway Community College site. The administration signalled Tuesday it would explore that option, but on Friday Malloy said that site seemed unsuitable as well.

“I will point out that that building does not have sprinklers either. So it probably doesn’t meet what [federal officials] are looking for,” Malloy said. “It doesn’t have sufficient windows, it doesn’t have a sprinkler system—but we’ve made them aware of it.” 

At the moment, he said the feds have not made additional requests to place children in state facilities.

Malloy said he would be “more than happy to lead a national discussion” on the placement of immigrant children. Asked whether he believed President Barack Obama had failed to adequately address the immigration issue, Malloy blamed Congress.

“I think the Congress of the United States has failed on immigration. I think the Tea Party has failed us all on immigration. As I stand here today, the folks who are belly-aching about immigration policy still haven’t given the president the money he’s asked for to tighten the borders,” he said.