(CNN) – After his strong criticism of the Obama administration's plans to return thousands of young undocumented migrants back to Central America, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley asked a top White House official that the children not be sent to a site that was under consideration in his home state, sources familiar with the conversation said.
"He privately said 'please don't send these kids to Western Maryland,'" a Democratic source told CNN. The heated discussion between O'Malley and White House domestic policy adviser Cecilia Munoz occurred during a phone call late Friday evening, sources familiar with the conversation added.
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A potential Democratic presidential candidate in 2016, O'Malley surprised some in his party when he sharply criticized a White House proposal to give new legal authorities to the Department of Homeland Security to expedite the deportation of the unaccompanied minors and their families.
“We are not a country that should turn children away and send them back to certain death,” O’Malley said last week at a National Governors Association meeting in Nashville.
Instead, the governor urged the administration to show compassion toward the children, describing some of the facilities where the young detainees are being kept as "kennels."
“Through all of the great world religions we are told that hospitality to strangers is an essential human dignity,” O’Malley said.
Hours after making those remarks, O'Malley expressed concerns to Munoz about a proposal under consideration by the Department of Health and Human Services to convert a former Army Reserve Center in Westminster, Maryland to house the children.
A senior O'Malley administration official confirmed the conversation took place. But the official stressed O'Malley did not reject the idea of temporarily housing some of the children in other parts of the state.
"Governor O’Malley and his administration are working cooperatively with federal officials to find suitable locations in Maryland for unaccompanied minors fleeing violence in Central America," said O'Malley press secretary Nina Smith. "As he has said repeatedly, he believes the priority should be placing children with family members and–if that’s not possible–locating housing that is safe, humane, and non-restrictive," she added.
The HHS plan stirred up outrage among local elected officials in Maryland, including Rep. Andy Harris, R-Maryland, whose office cited "potential health risks" to the surrounding community.
"Flying them to Maryland only to turn around and fly them back home is nonsensical. Instead, President Obama should immediately return them to their nation of origin," Harris said in a statement.
HHS has since scuttled the plan for the Western Maryland site, an O'Malley official said.
In response to O'Malley's comments, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Monday some of the unaccompanied minors who have arrived in the United States from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala in recent months may ultimately be allowed to stay in the country, if they can qualify for asylum status.
Migrants from Central America and other non-contiguous nations are granted special legal protections that allow them to plead their case to an immigration court, under a 2008 law designed to prevent human trafficking.
“If an immigration judge determines that they face a credible threat of death upon their return to their home country, then again, I’m not an immigration judge, but it is likely that the immigration judge will find that that person should be granted humanitarian relief,” Earnest said.
A senior O'Malley administration official acknowledged the governor's comments last Friday irritated senior White House officials, prompting the call from Munoz to O'Malley.
But the governor's press secretary emphasized O'Malley has offered Obama administration officials his state's assistance in dealing with the crisis.
“Governor O’Malley has been discussing this issue for weeks with the White House, he has helped identify ways Maryland can assist with this humanitarian crisis, and he has directed the Maryland Department of Human Resources to take the steps necessary to find licensed providers who might be able to care for these children in Maryland," Smith said.
CNN’s David Chalian contributed to this report.