At a community meeting Thursday, officials from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services admitted that they fumbled a plan to house hundreds of illegal child immigrants at a college campus in Lawrenceville, Va.
“Absolutely, we feel we didn’t do it right here,” said Mark Weber, an HHS spokesman, according to the Associated Press. “We’re here to listen to the community. We’re here to sort this out.”
Weber was apologizing for confusion over a plan to house around 500 unaccompanied children, or UACs, at St. Paul’s College, a black college that recently closed down because of financial problems and accreditation issues.
U.S. immigration agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection have scrambled to keep up with a surge of UACs, who hail mostly from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. So far in fiscal year 2014, 47,000 UACs have been apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border, an increase of 92 percent over last year’s tally.
HHS is in charge of finding housing and other accommodations for the UACs. So far, they have opened housing facilities at military installations in Texas, Oklahoma and California. Nearly 100 non-profit federal grantees are housing thousands of the child immigrants.
Newly vacant, St. Paul’s College appealed to the agency.
But local officials and residents of the Virginia farming community of around 1,500 have expressed frustration and anger at HHS’s plan.
The agency signed a lease with the school last Friday. HHS would reportedly pay St. Paul’s $100,000 a month for the next five months to house the UACs. The school is set to go up for auction soon, but the deal would provide short term cash flow to help it pay down debt in the meantime.
But after the plan was leaked, HHS put it on hold. As community concern grew, they decided to hold Thursday’s community meeting, which was held at Brunswick Sr. High School. The facility has a 900 person capacity, though around 1,100 showed.
“I just don’t have the greatest amount of comfort right now,” Brunswick County sheriff Brian Roberts told WRIC before the meeting. “Seeing is believing and right now, based on what we have gone through the last couple of days, I’m struggling with having all the faith in the federal government right now.”
“It’s a little bit upsetting and I am a little bit concerned,” local resident Rebecca Archer told WRIC. “I’m really concerned actually for the safety of my kids and the safety of the area around here,” she said.
“Please take your UAC’s, locate them in DC where you can keep a very close eye on their welfare rather than putting them in our backyard,” said one man at Thursday’s meeting, according to WTVR.
“We’ve got people right here in town that don’t have anywhere to lay their heads,” Lawrenceville resident Joanna Pritchett told NPR.
Essie Workie, a regional HHS official, apologized for “communication challenges,” the Associated Press reported.
“We do apologize for the fact that you heard about this project too far along,” Kenneth Tota with the Office for Refugee Resettlement said, WTVR reported. The station also said that HHS will make a decision soon over whether to use St. Paul’s.
Reached by The Daily Caller, Sheriff Roberts said that he will be meeting with HHS officials Friday morning. “I expect them to pack up their bags and leave,” he said.