The Obama administration Friday abandoned plans to use a defunct college in a rural Virginia town as housing for some of the illegal immigrant children flooding across the border, bowing to fierce local opposition as the government struggles to find sites to put the thousands of unaccompanied minors.
“We have heard the concerns of many of the residents and leaders of Lawrenceville about the proposal to temporarily care for unaccompanied children at the now-closed Saint Paul’s College,” Department of Health and Human Services spokesman Mark A. Weber said. “We have taken this proposal off the table and will move on quickly to identify other sites to temporarily house these vulnerable children.”
The announcement followed a heated community meeting at a high school in Lawrenceville, a hardscrabble town about 70 miles south of Richmond. More than a thousand residents attended to voice opposition to the plan and denounce the Obama administration officials for trying to force the project upon their impoverished community.
“We talk slow around here and with a twang. But we say what we mean,” Aaron Smith, a sergeant in the National Guard and a former Marine, told administration officials at the meeting. “Let me talk straight into your eyes: We don’t want you here.”
The residents expressed concerns about security, disease, the town’s overburdened emergency services and tax dollars going to unaccompanied alien children — or UACs — instead of local families living in poverty.
The uproar in Lawrenceville encapsulated the national debate raging over illegal immigration and the crisis spreading form America’s southern border.
After learning that the administration had nixed the Lawrenceville project, Mr. Smith applauded the HHS officials for keeping their promise that they would listen to the community.
“I’m actually for one time happy with my federal government for doing what they told us they would do,” he told The Washington Times by phone. “That’s all our community wanted.”
Rep. Robert Hurt, whose district includes Lawrenceville, pressed the Obama administration to listen to residents’ concerns and said that he was “thankful that HHS has made the right decision.”
“However, it must be said that the manner in which HHS attempted to impose its plan on our community without any meaningful input is a painful reminder of just how disconnected Washington has become from the people it is supposed to represent — a Washington that always seems to be wiser and know better than its local elected leaders and its citizens,” said Mr. Hurt, a Republican.
He added: “It is impossible to ignore the tremendous frustration expressed last night by the overwhelming majority of decent and law-abiding citizens about the current state of U.S. immigration policy. What we are seeing on our southern U.S. border is an undeniable crisis, and it is a crisis that has been perpetrated and perpetuated by the federal government. This administration’s reckless refusal to secure our borders and enforce the laws of the United States virtually begs the poor and the desperate from foreign countries to cross our borders illegally. I share the frustration of my constituents and hope that this crisis will be a catalyst for a renewed effort at achieving an immigration policy that is rooted in the rule of law.”
Scrapping the plan to house about 500 older youths at the college was a major setback for the administration, which is scrambling to find a community that will accept the children. Lawrenceville was the second community to reject the children this month.
Plans to house some of the children at an empty office complex in Baltimore were dropped after the city’s Democratic mayor and Maryland’s two Democratic senators objected as soon as the details were announced.
The Lawrenceville project got off to a bad start last week when town and county officials learned of it only after administration officials signed a lease with St. Paul’s College, a historic black university that closed last year after losing its accreditation.
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.
But the community couldn’t be sold on the plan, which included posting armed guards from the Homeland Security Department on the campus.
Residents also were skeptical about the federal government’s claims that it would conduct criminal background checks on the youths, about 75 percent of whom would be ages 15 to 17, and only those deemed not “at risk” would be housed at the old college.