LAWRENCEVILLE, VA. | More than 1,000 people crowded into a high school auditorium Thursday in this hardscrabble rural Virginia town to confront Obama administration officials with fierce opposition to plans to turn a defunct college here into housing for some of the illegal-immigrant children flooding across the border.
The residents raised concerns about security, disease, impact on overburdened emergency services and tax dollars going to unaccompanied alien children (UACs) instead of local families living in poverty.
“Please take your UACs and relocate them to D.C., where you can keep a very close eye on their welfare and keep them out of our backyard,” said John Zubrod, one in a long line of residents lined up at Brunswick High School to address Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) officials.
The administration organized the community meeting in an attempt to salvage the plan to turn St. Paul's College, a historically black college that closed last year after losing accreditation, into temporary emergency shelter for about 500 children.
The plan was halted earlier this week after backlash from community members and local officials, who only learned of the project after the feds signed a lease with the college, about 70 miles south of Richmond.
The children were supposed to have arrived Thursday. Instead, HHS officials struggled to persuade a crowd of angry residents that bringing the children to Lawrenceville would create jobs, boost the economy and provide a desperately needed humanitarian service.
“The people we are talking about are more than an acronym. They are more than a legal definition. They are children,” said Essey Workie, regional director for HHS's Administration for Children and Families.
She described the hardship faced by the children, who mostly come from violence-wracked countries in Central America.
“Children are witnessing their mothers being murdered. Children are being raped. Children are being threatened left and right,” she said. “I think it is important we keep at the center of our minds who we are talking about — children who have really suffered already.”
Her plea did not sway the crowd.
Anne Williams, who lives on a shady street by the college, said that she was a “fervent Catholic” and wanted to help all children. But she still had reservations about bringing hundreds of the children to her town, where children struggle in poverty.
“We cannot save the world unless first focused on children in poverty in the United States,” she said to a loud round of applause.
On that front, Ken Tota, deputy director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, warned the crowd that they risked losing the benefits the project could bring to the struggling town of 1,500 people, where most of the storefronts on Main Street are empty.
“If this community is not the right place. We’ll find one that is,” he said. “If those federal dollars are not here, they will be somewhere else.”
Plans to house some of the children at an empty office complex in Baltimore were scrapped after the city’s Democratic mayor and Maryland’s two Democratic senators objected as soon as the details were announced.
But preparations for the campus continued throughout the day Thursday.
HHS officials have told residents that the campus would house about 500 children, about 75 percent of them males between the ages of 15 and 17.
The administration estimated that a steady stream of children would be on the campus, under armed guards from the Homeland Security Department, with each child staying about 30 days until being reunited with a parent or family member.
“No way do I want to be living anywhere with armed guards and a security fence,” said Donna Lewis, who said she moved with her grandchildren from Washington, D.C., to Lawrenceville seeking a quiet life.
Along the street by the campus, a series of signs delivered a simple message: “No.”
Before the meeting, Emory Samford, who owns a funeral home next door to the campus and put up the “No” signs, said nearly every resident on the street opposes bringing the children to their town.
“The federal government tells us these kids aren’t violent and that there’s nothing wrong with them. But they’re putting up armed guards right in the middle of this community,” said Mr. Samford, who also lives in a house on the street.
At least 90,000 children — mostly from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — will be caught this year trying to cross the border unaccompanied by one or both parents, and more than 140,000 will be apprehended in 2015, according to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection memo.
Until recently, just about 8,000 unaccompanied children per year attempted to cross the border.
The Obama administration has called the wave of children a “humanitarian crisis” driven by children flee to the U.S. to escape rampant gang violence in Central American countries.
Critics, however, contend that President Obama laid out a welcome mat for illegal immigrants, especially minors, by discouraging deportations. Government interviews with the young border crossers confirm that many believe that once they arrive in the U.S., they’ll be allowed to stay.