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Top Dallas official bets political future by opening arms to immigrants

By Lisa Maria Garza

DALLAS (Reuters) - Images of protesters trying to stop buses loaded with illegal immigrants may dominate the news, but in the heart of Texas, one county judge is taking on friends and foes by trying to find shelter for child migrants flooding across the U.S. border.

Dallas Judge Clay Jenkins, 50, offered federal authorities empty buildings to house 2,000 children from Central America in a risky political move as he faces re-election in November for the top political office in Dallas County.

"These children need our help now. If I lose an election over this, so be it," said Jenkins, who has offered the use of two empty schools and a warehouse and has the unilateral power to do so under the way the county commission operates.

His proposal is in stark contrast to Texas governor Rick Perry's tough stance on the recent influx of tens of thousands of illegal migrants, many of them children, fleeing violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Perry has ordered the deployment of National Guard troops to the border with Mexico.

While Perry and fellow Republican U.S. Senator Ted Cruz have called for compassion for the children, Jenkins is one of the few politicians in the state to offer up a plan to help them.

In other parts of the United States, a few major Democrat-led cities such as Los Angeles and Syracuse, New York have raised their hand to help, but the plan from Dallas County stands out in a state that is a Republican stronghold.

Underscoring the divisiveness of the border issue in Texas, especially in an election year, Jenkins' proposal is opposed by a fellow Democrat, Eric Williams, who is running for Congress. Williams says the buildings earmarked for shelters are in poor communities with high unemployment rates.

"He's taken a federal problem and he's turned it into a Dallas County problem," said Mike Cantrell, a Republican Dallas County commissioner who also opposes the plan. The county commission is dominated by Democrats.

If federal authorities agree to fund the plan and approve the use of the facilities, Dallas County would become home to one of the largest contingents of "unaccompanied minors" from Central America, who have mostly been held at military bases to avoid opposition from local governments.

MIGRANT SURGE SPARKS BACKLASH

During the nine months ending June 30, more than 57,000 children were detained at the U.S.-Mexico border, according to U.S. government data.

The surge of migrants has inundated authorities in Texas, and created a backlash in places like Murrieta, California, and Oracle, Arizona, where some migrants were to be sent for processing at overflow centers.

The protesters say the children are straining U.S. finances and diverting attention from Border Patrol efforts to intercept criminal cartels who are smuggling drugs across the border.

They also see the children as bringing disease, ramping up crime and creating long term financial harm by joining welfare roles, claims hotly disputed by immigration rights activists.

Local governments in places such as Kaufman County, which borders Dallas, say they will oppose any attempt by federal authorities to house the children in their areas.

"None of us want to be harmful to kids. That's not what we are about as a county, but on the other hand we want to make sure that the children we have here and the citizens that we have living in our county are protected as well," Kaufman County Judge Bruce Wood told broadcaster WFAA-TV.

Jenkins strongly disagrees.

"We don’t have to solve the border crisis to show compassion to scared children who are alone," Jenkins told Reuters.

While there has been no major polling done for the Dallas race, Jenkins has a huge lead in fundraising against his Republican opponent, taking in about 11 times more money, according to campaign finances data compiled by the Dallas Morning News.

His plan has united religious leaders in the county, who have used sermons to try to sway sometimes skeptical parishioners. But it has also created a backlash among some who see it as a foolhardy idea that will cause harm to the region.

“We are setting the welfare of others outside our nation above our own citizens, who should be No. 1 and first in line to receive benefits,” wrote Eric Hansen in the Dallas Morning News.

On a recent July day, Jenkins went door-to-door in the surrounding neighborhoods of the proposed shelters and said he was "overwhelmed" by the positive response from residents after explaining the federal government would be footing the bill and that the migrant children would not be wandering around.

"To tell these children that no one cares, and you must go home without due process, that’s not only immoral, un-Godly, unkind, un-feeling, un-Texas, unforgivable – we will be judged,” Dallas resident Eulaine Hall said at a Dallas County Commissioners meeting in early July.

(Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Writing by Jon Herskovitz, editing by Ross Colvin)

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