Federal immigration officials on Friday scrapped a plan to open a shelter for young refugees on the Saint Paul’s College campus after more than 1,000 people turned out to angrily denounce the move.
“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,” said Mark A. Weber, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in a statement. “We have taken this proposal off the table and will move on quickly to identify other sites to temporarily house these vulnerable children.”
Read: Letter from HHS
The Homeland Security vehicles and employees who had been on the campus for the past few weeks have left, said Brunswick County Sheriff Brian K. Roberts.
“As of 3:41 p.m. today, we received official written notification from HHS that they are leaving immediately,” Roberts said. “The citizens of Brunswick were heard loud and clear, and that’s all I ever wanted was for us to be informed.”
Many in the economically stressed Southside community welcomed the announcement, but not Saint Paul’s president, Millard D. “Pete” Stith Jr.
“I’m obviously very disappointed in the decision because I think it would be a win-win for the community and for Saint Paul’s,” Stith said.
For housing up to 500 unaccompanied immigrant minors, who have crossed the border illegally from Mexico, the college would have received $160,000 a month under the lease with HHS, he said.
The revenue would have helped pay for repairs that would make the property more attractive to potential buyers, he said.
But more importantly, he said, the use would have been in keeping with the mission of the historically black college, which was founded in 1888.
“This was a humanitarian effort that we thought we could be a part of,” he said, adding that he thought the fact that “we are a nation of immigrants” had been lost amid the heated rhetoric in Thursday’s public hearing.
Lawrenceville Town Councilman Robert F. Pecht said that because of the manner in which HHS sought to quietly open the shelter, the plan did not stand a chance even if all of the residents’ concerns could have been addressed,
HHS “broke the trust” with the community, Pecht said.
A five-month lease — which HHS and the college had hoped would be extended — was signed June 12 without consultation with the Brunswick Board of Supervisors or the Lawrenceville Town Council. The young refugees were to arrive June 19.
Roberts, who was among only a handful of local officials briefed on the plan before the news became public, said that the more he learned about the shelter, the more concerned he became.
He said he sat in on a security-assessment briefing by Homeland Security that “led me to believe that historical Saint Paul’s College was going to be transformed into a military-detainee installment of sorts.”
Department officials retreated in the face of overwhelming opposition from residents at the hearing as well as from Sen. Mark R. Warner, D-Va., and Rep. Robert Hurt, R-5th.
During the nearly four-hour public meeting in the auditorium of Brunswick High School — with thunder at times echoing outside — residents raised fears about crime the youths might bring to their neighborhoods and complained about tax dollars being used to aid illegal immigrants when there was so much need at home.
Warner said he hoped the agencies involved in the effort would “learn from their missteps in Lawrenceville and Brunswick County.”
He added in a statement Friday: “This was the right call. Collaboration and local support is absolutely key for the success of a project like this.”
Hurt, who represents the community in the House, described the agencies’ missteps as “underhanded.”
He said he was thankful HHS made the right decision, but “the manner in which HHS attempted to impose its plan on our community without any meaningful input is a painful reminder” of how disconnected Washington has become.
Hurt also slammed the Obama administration’s immigration policy, saying he hoped “the tremendous frustration expressed” at the hearing will be a catalyst to change what he called a “reckless refusal to secure our borders.”
Weber, who attended Thursday’s hearing and was among the HHS officials who acknowledged the poor handling of the Saint Paul’s plan, did not immediately respond to a question about whether other sites in Virginia might be considered for shelters.
However, Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-9th, sent a pre-emptive letter Friday to HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell warning not to try to slip a shelter onto Virginia Intermont College’s campus in Bristol.
Virginia Intermont will lose accreditation July 1, as Saint Paul’s did last year. State Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Hazel suggested the two colleges as possible options when he was asked whether the state had any places that might be used for shelters.
Art Rebrovick, VIC’s interim president, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch on June 10 that federal officials did not contact him during the initial search. Nor have they called since the Saint Paul’s option ran into trouble, he said Friday.
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