Community outrage forced the federal government to nix its plans to house illegal immigrant children at a defunct college in rural Virginia, but the school fought back this month with discrimination complaints accusing both the Obama administration and its own neighbors of bigotry.
St. Paul’s College and nonprofit Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME) of Virginia say local officials in Lawrenceville, Virginia, and surrounding Brunswick County stirred up racial animosity against the children. In a separate complaint, they accused the federal Health and Human Services Department of caving to pressure and canceling a lease, also violating anti-discrimination rules.
“No one should block someone’s housing opportunity based on race or national origin,” said Helen O’Beirne Hardiman, the fair housing director for HOME. “It’s unfair, and it’s completely illegal for government officials to step in to a private deal and say we don’t want Central American children coming to this community.”
She and St. Paul’s lodged a complaint with the Housing and Urban Development Department, targeting the local officials, and filed another discrimination complaint with HHS’s own Office for Civil Rights, arguing the department broke the law by canceling the deal.
Local officials bristled at the notion they did anything wrong, saying they merely asked for a community meeting so HHS and the college could explain their plans. More than 1,000 people showed up, and sentiment ran strongly against housing the children.
“I don’t have anything to hide or run from. I don’t think I did anything wrong,” said Brunswick County Sheriff B.K. Roberts, whom the complaints accused of stirring opposition. “I think the U.S. Constitution clearly says that I have the opportunity for freedom of speech. I spoke to oppose. That’s what I did. I still oppose it.”
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He said that his opposition to the plan was based on the federal government’s “mishandling” of the situation.
“There were too many questions left unanswered. There were too many inconsistencies,” said Sheriff Roberts. “It was just poorly handled by the federal government. The result was that we had a public forum and the general sentiment there was opposition.”
The surge of children — more than 66,000 have crossed the border and been detained by the Homeland Security Department from Oct. 1, 2013, through Aug. 31 — has strained federal budgets and tested local governments in all sorts of ways, including having to face community backlash.
Some of the antipathy stems from reports of communicable diseases within the illegal immigrant population, but much of the backlash is a reaction to the broader illegal immigration debate, according to those on both sides of that fight.
Lawrenceville became one of the flashpoints for that backlash.
The public forum Sheriff Roberts and other local community leaders called saw more than 1,000 people show up, with sentiment overwhelmingly opposed.
“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.
HHS had planned to send about 500 children, most of them males age 15 to 17, to the campus, where they would benefit from St. Paul’s dormitories, cafeteria, classrooms, gymnasium and athletic fields.
College President Millard “Pete” Stith thought it was a win-win — the feds needed the space, the college needed the money, and the community needed jobs. He alerted both town and county officials, whom he said didn’t give him any pushback.
“This is like manna from heaven,” he said. “I’m walking around with my chest sticking out, because I’m saying me and my partners in the county and town are going to be benefitting from this project. Silly me.”
In the complaints, filed with both HUD and HHS, Mr. Stith and the HOME group point to a chain of events that they said show the local officials reacted to discriminatory impulses from the community, which were captured in some of the more pointed comments at the June 19 town meeting about potential diseases or gang affiliations.
“They shouted down people who got up and even came close to saying this is a good deal,” Mr. Stith said. “It was horrible. I know that if I were an official from these communities, I would not have wanted the world to see how my folks reacted to other people coming in who were different from me.”
In their official complaint with HUD, Mr. Stith and the HOME group said some of the statements made by residents were “facially discriminatory” while others were “thinly veiled coded language” showing antipathy based on national origin.
The local officials had also fired off a letter to Rep. Robert Hurt, the congressman who represents the area. Mr. Hurt then wrote to HHS on June 16 asking them to suspend the lease and provide any information the local officials wanted.
A day after the town hall meeting, on June 20, HHS said it was canceling the lease.
Canceling the contract put St. Paul’s out the $160,000 a month it had been promised and put the school back in the financial straits that had caused it to shut its doors to college students in 2013.
Mr. Hurt’s office declined to comment. He is not the subject of either of the complaints, which focus on the local officials and HHS, which is charged under federal law with caring for the children.
HHS didn’t respond to a request for comment Friday.
Ms. Hardiman, the official from HOME, said documents that the nonprofit group has obtained under the Freedom of Information Act indicate to them that the local officials instigated the backlash through what she called “unofficial actions behind the scenes.”
“The causation, if you look at the time line, it’s so clear they were behind the backlash, and so our position is they were responsible for that discrimination,” she said.
She said the local officials never should have had any say in the decisions, since St. Paul’s was already zoned to be able to handle the children.
Lawrenceville Mayor William H. “Bill” Herrington said he would reserve comment until the town receives an official notice of the complaint. However, he said that he didn’t think conducting a community meeting for residents to learn about the federal government plan was inappropriate.
“We do live in America,” he said.
Mr. Herrington was mayor-elect when the community meeting was held in June and helped conduct the meeting. He said the community meeting was advertised as an a forum for residents to get information from federal officials about the plans to shelter the children.
Mr. Herrington also insisted that the town and the college remain on good terms.
“Our relationship with the college is great. It’s my alma mater,” he said. “We’ve been asked by the college recently to work out something, really to forgive the water bill,” he said. “So we’re working with them. They are trying to get that resolved.”