Iowa Senator Tom Harkin is chiding Iowa’s governor over the situation with thousands of Central American children entering the U.S. illegally and unaccompanied via the border with Mexico. Republican Governor Branstad has said he has empathy for the children but he does not want any of them coming to Iowa. Harkin, a Democrat, says he’s disappointed with Branstad’s decision. “I’m just upset at this harshness — this harshness — that seems to be pervading our politics these days,” Harkin says. “Even in a terrible situation like this, even the administration says we’ve gotta’ change the law to send them back quicker. No we don’t.”

The mayor of Davenport is offering to create a refuge for some of the children. Mayor Bill Gluba says he’s working with hospitals, churches and other groups to make a haven for the refuges in the Mississippi River town. Harkin applauds Gluba’s effort. “What we need to do is make sure the kids are safe, well-fed, housed, clothed and that we do our utmost to make sure they are not returned to dangerous situations,” Harkin says. “Then we can be talking about how we work with Central American governments to crack down on the gangs and the violence in their own countries.”

The federal government has placed some 200 of the immigrant children with families in Nebraska, but that state’s governor says no one in state government was told where or with whom. Governor Branstad was trying to prevent a similar move in Iowa, but Harkin says that’s the wrong attitude. “Governor Branstad said don’t send immigrant children to Iowa,” Harkin says. “You know, why not? Why can’t we help protect these kids too? Open up our arms to keep them safe and to give them every reasonable opportunity to apply for asylum.”

Harkin notes a contrast between Branstad and another Iowa Republican. “What a departure from Governor Bob Ray, back in the ’70s, when he was governor and we took all the boat people from Vietnam and the Hmong from Laos,” Harkin says. “They didn’t go through proper channels. They were refugees and we took them in and they have become a wonderful part of the Iowa community.”

Since October, some 57,000 children have come across the U.S. border with Mexico illegally from nations like Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Harkin says Iowa should welcome the children, saying, “that’s in keeping with our history in Iowa.”