The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced Friday that it is backing away from a plan to house illegal child immigrants at a recently-closed black college in Virginia.
St. Paul’s College, in Lawrenceville, was being eyed as a place to house 500 Unaccompanied Children — minors, mostly from Central America, who were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border.
A contract signed on June 12 would have given St. Paul’s College — which closed last year amid financial difficulties and accreditation issues — $160,000 a month for the next five months.
But the “done deal” unraveled after local residents expressed outrage over the plan.
“I write to inform you that the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families will discontinue all activities for the development of a temporary emergency shelter for unaccompanied children at the campus of St. Paul’s College,” reads a letter sent Friday from ACF acting assistant secretary Mark H. Greenberg to Lawrenceville community leaders.
One of those leaders, Brunswick County sheriff Brian Roberts, had been highly critical of the proposal as well.
“Based on the above information that I was provided and the mishandling and inconsistencies of information given to the people by the federal government, I OPPOSE the implementation of this program at St. Paul’s College,” Roberts wrote in a statement.
Roberts said that he was informed that a plan was in the works on June 2 by St. Paul’s College president Peter Stith. He also said that on June 12, HHS and the college had finalized a deal to use the campus, though the “done deal” was reached without his or local residents’ input.
Roberts finally held a conference call with HHS officials last Sunday and met with them on Monday. But according to Roberts, the meetings made him “become more and more concerned about the federal government’s consistency in the information that they provided me.”
The sheriff also coordinated a town hall meeting with HHS officials on Thursday to discuss the proposal, where residents of Lawrenceville and the surrounding area adamantly challenged government officials, who apologized at the meeting for what they said was a communication error on their part.
Many residents expressed concern that the children — most of whom traveled from violent countries like Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala — would bring more crime with them. Others felt that federal money could be spent to help people who were already living in the area.
Stith expressed disappointment over the reversal.
“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,” he told The Roanoke Times.
Stith hoped that the money from the federal government would help the college pay off debt while also improving the facility, which will soon go up for auction.
Since October of last year, 52,000 Unaccompanied Children and 39,000 adults with children have been apprehended at the border. Far larger than the norm, the surge has left the Department of Homeland Security to house the children and families.
HHS is the agency in charge of finding housing. So far, military bases in California, Texas, and Oklahoma have been designated to house the children.
U.S. immigration policy dictates that once the children are apprehended at the border, they are processed and then placed in the federal facilities. While there, federal agencies search for relatives or sponsors with whom the children can be placed while they await deportation proceedings.
It is unclear how many of the children and families will ultimately be allowed to stay in the U.S.