OYSTER CREEK, Texas — A shelter for Central American children who crossed the border illegally opened behind Gregg Griffith’s house here a few months ago. The children are quiet. No one has hopped over the fence that separates his backyard from the shelter, a once-vacant youth home. But when Griffith looks at the brightly painted brick buildings, he is mostly resentful.
“That’s my tax money taking care of a foreign national or however you want to classify them,” said Griffith, 51, a volunteer fireman and researcher at a chemical plant. “I don’t want to take care of a foreign national. It’s not my problem. We did house kids in Brazoria County there at the youth home. I sort of feel like we should be taking care of our own first.”
Overwhelmed by an influx of unaccompanied minors who are fleeing violence in their home countries in Central America, federal officials are searching the country for places to house them and have been forced to scrap some proposed shelter sites in California, Connecticut, Iowa, New York and other states because of widespread opposition from residents and local officials, some of it extreme.
A few of the protesters who marched against a proposed shelter in Vassar, Michigan, on Monday were armed with semi-automatic rifles and handguns. In Virginia, an effort to house the children at the shuttered campus of Saint Paul’s College in Lawrenceville caused such an uproar that federal officials pulled out, even though a five-month lease had been signed. Someone spray-painted anti-immigrant graffiti on a brick wall at a former Army Reserve facility in Westminster, Maryland, that was being considered as a shelter site.
The politics of handling the wave of immigrants has grown toxic with some raising contested health and security concerns. Northeast of Oyster Creek, the town of League City, Texas, passed a resolution opposing any shelters from opening even though the federal government had no plans to do so. The resolution claimed that “illegal aliens suffering from diseases endemic in their countries of origin are being released into our communities.”
The organizations that are hired by federal officials to run some of the emergency shelters housing Central American children dispute claims that the children pose a health threat. Krista Piferrer, a spokeswoman for Baptist Child and Family Services, or BCFS, which runs a shelter for Central American children at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, said there had been 133 cases of lice, 25 cases of scabies, 15 cases of chickenpox and one case of H1N1 flu, out of thousands of children who have stayed at the base since May.
“The illnesses that we’re seeing at these sites are not unlike what public school nurses see,” said Piferrer, whose organization operates temporary and permanent shelters for the children in California and Oklahoma, as well as Texas. “We do not believe that these children present any public health concern.”
Yet the worries of neighbors and local officials persist.
“We hate to see something like this that would paint us as an unfriendly town not open to all people,” said Robert J. Pecht, a councilman in Lawrenceville. “If you signed up to live next to a four-year college, that’s one thing. But you didn’t sign up to live next to something that requires Homeland Security.”
In Southern California, where protesters in San Diego County turned away busloads of migrant children in Murrieta and helped squash a proposal to open a shelter in nearby Escondido, politicians and residents have become more openly hostile to immigrants than at any time in recent history.
“They’re not legal, and they expect to come and get benefits,” said Richard Jones, 64, a retired electrician who lives in Escondido. “It makes no sense at all. Why should we have to serve them? Why should we have to pay anything?”
Congress is considering changes to a 2008 law intended to stop sex trafficking that has made it harder to quickly return the tens of thousands of children caught crossing the border to their home countries.
Still, some of the anger is partisan and aimed at the Obama administration. But it is showing up in a wide range of places and people. Heidi Thiess, the councilwoman in League City, who drafted the anti-shelter resolution, is a former Army officer who is white, has a racially mixed family and lived for a time in Yucatan, Mexico, with her husband and children, helping to build a medical clinic and orphanage for the poor.
Federal officials’ failure to seek local input is also to blame.
Residents in Oyster Creek said they learned about the shelter there from the local news. Pecht, the councilman from Virginia, said federal officials treated the plan in Lawrenceville as a “done deal” and left many local questions unanswered.
Logistical as well as political issues appeared to have scuttled a plan in Iowa to house the children at an academy for at-risk youth. State officials were concerned about placing the children at a facility on the same grounds as a medium-security state prison, but Gov. Terry E. Branstad, a Republican, has suggested that he did not want undocumented children housed in his state.
“I do have empathy for these kids, but I also don’t want to send the signal, ‘Send your kids to America illegally’ — that’s not the right message,” Branstad told reportersMonday, adding:
“Just because we’re an empathetic and supportive country doesn’t mean that we can take everybody.”
Officials with the federal Administration for Children and Families, which oversees the housing of unaccompanied children as part of the Department of Health and Human Services, declined to comment about the opposition to shelter sites.
Rumors have proliferated in many communities. Opponents said the migrant children would flood local school districts, but their average stay in a shelter is roughly 30 days, and many are placed with relatives who live elsewhere. Residents often believe the shelters create a tremendous local cost, but they are typically run by contractors paid by the federal government and operate at little if any direct cost to municipalities.
In San Antonio, Piferrer, the spokeswoman for the group that runs the shelter there, said their shelters generate no local financial burden, although state resources have been used. After a child at the Lackland base was diagnosed with the H1N1 flu, the organization requested and received nearly 1,400 flu vaccines from state health officials to give to children at the base. The group then asked the state to send them the $26,000 bill for the vaccines.
In the heated debates over the shelters, the voices of some of the people who live closest to them have been largely drowned out. Their opinions are occasionally more welcoming than the headlines and protests suggest.
In the Dallas County town of Grand Prairie, officials had expressed skepticism about the plan to house hundreds of children at a former school. But their concerns were eased after Clay Jenkins, the county judge, and others went door-to-door in the school’s neighborhood and found that residents were overwhelmingly positive.
“I was blown away by their support,” said Jenkins, who is leading the effort to house 2,000 children at three sites in the county. “I don’t feel like we have to solve the border crisis for a terrified child to be shown some compassion.”
On one street in Oyster Creek, those who live next to the shelter, or have relatives who do, expressed a mix of opinions. As Griffith spoke about how his tax dollars were being used, Roberto Hermosillo, 46, worked in the front yard outside his son’s house nearby. Hermosillo said he could sympathize with the journey the children were making: His parents came to Texas illegally in the 1960s from Mexico and became U.S. citizens.
“I was raised from illegal parents that came into the USA and strived and survived and struggled to maintain in the USA,” said Hermosillo, a construction worker. “We have our children sometimes wander off into other countries, to explore, to visit. How would we want them to be treated?”
Brenda Browning, 65, lives so close to the shelter that her grandchildren can touch the fence when they use the swing in the front yard. And yet she has few complaints about the immigrants next door. There have been no problems with crime, she said, and she has no health concerns.
Browning is trying to sell her house, though, and wonders if the shelter has turned off potential buyers. Even so, she does not oppose it.
“I’ve got mixed feelings,” she said. “I know it’s not these kids’ fault that they’re being housed here. I’m a softy for kids.”