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HHS backs off on St. Paul’s plan / June 23, 2014
Hundreds of residents from Lawrenceville and Brunswick County poured into the auditorium of Brunswick High School Thursday night for the opportunity to tell the Feds what they thought of a plan to house unaccompanied alien children (UAC) on the campus of St. Paul’s College in downtown Lawrenceville. The message, which Essie Workie and Ken Tota of Health and Human Services (HHS) heard loud and clear, was “Not in my backyard.”

HHS and its Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is charged with providing the UAC’s with a safe and appropriate environment until they are either united with a family member, placed with a US sponsor or repatriated (returned to their home country), planned to use the shuttered campus as an east coast temporary holding facility for up to 500 boys between the ages of 14 and 17. While the initial contract signed by St. Paul’s and HHS was for five months, Tota admitted that his office hope to use the facility much longer.

The sentiment of a majority of the crowd attending Thursday’s meeting came from two local residents. One told officials, “We are in favor of your federal jobs, benefits and dollars for area, which has suffered numerous losses, and we certainly need the money. However, you are telling us by your presence here today that the federal government believes it is more important to spend our tax dollars on illegals then those born here in the first place….So we say take your UAC’s and locate them in DC where you can keep a very close eye on them.”

The second speaker, Arron Smith said, “The people here don’t want to ask you any questions. We really don’t want to hear your selling points. We don’t want to hear your politically correct terms. We talk slow around here. We got a little twang, but talk direct. Let me say this to you as I look square in your eyes. We do not want you here.”

After both comments, the hall erupted into loud, sustained applause.

On Friday, acting assistant HHS Secretary Mark Greenberg notified town officials that HHS was discontinuing “all activities for the development of a temporary emergency shelter for unaccompanied children at the campus of St. Paul’s College.” For St. Paul’s College President Millard “Pete” Stith, it is the end to what he called a “win-win for the town and St. Paul’s.”

Only one speaker, during Thursday night’s public forum, expressed concern for the historic campus and its buildings, but even he criticized the program for potentially endangering the campus’ historic designation, because of alterations to the buildings mandated by Homeland Security.

After learning that Brunswick County and local officials were briefed about the possibility of using St. Paul’s to house UAC’s ten days before the issue was leaked to the public, few complained about the lack of prior public input. Instead, the most common criticism delivered to the officials was directed toward what was described as their willingness to care for illegal immigrants while ignoring the plight of families and children in and around Lawrenceville who go without adequate food, housing, or medical care.

The panelist in Lawrenceville who were there to answer questions included - in addition to Workie, Region 3 administrator for the Administration for Children and Family (ACF) and Tota, deputy director for ORR - officials with Homeland Security and a physician with HHS. Aside from responses given by Tota and Workie, who did most of the talking, few of the questions put to the panel were answered to the satisfaction of the audience.

When asked how Homeland Security, which according to the questioner has failed to secure our borders, can guarantee the safety of the citizens, Cathy Long of Homeland Security, said she and other security officials toured the campus and made recommendations, but did not elaborate on those recommendations. She added that because the St. Paul’s facility was being leased, that local law enforcement had “concurrent jurisdiction” over the site.

This last comment drew mutters from the crowd about contradictory statements – Tota said the federal government would provide all security. Yet Long suggested that they would look to Lawrenceville police and Brunswick County Sheriff’s office for additional security.

Muttering from the crowd also followed the comments of a local citizen who questioned the truthfulness of Workie’s and Tota’s statement that plans to convert St. Paul’s to a detention facility for UAC’s was on hold. One local resident noted that there were online job postings related to the program and several others commented on the influx of workers on the campus, making repairs to the buildings and the grounds.

The loudest jeers, however, came when Tota, in response to a question, said that Homeland Security verifies the age and background of the UAC’s coming to Lawrenceville by looking at the papers they carry, which he said included birth documents.

A licensed clinical social worker from Emporia, who asked about the qualifications of the clinicians who would be working with these UAC’s [Workie and Tota both said these children were often severely traumatized either before or during their journey to the US and would be seen by medical and clinical professionals] was simply told that the staff would be trained.

The doctor who gave that answered was asked if she understood the extent of the trauma these children suffered, having witnessed or been a victim of rape, assault, and having what the social worker called “refugee trauma?” The doctor’s response was “the workers will be trained.”

No answers were given to Geraldine Woodley, whose husband James was the ex-sheriff of Brunswick County. Woodley asked, “How long will the feds administer this program before it is turned over to St. Paul’s without adequate staff? Who runs this program when [HHS] pulls out and leaves?”

For three hours federal officials heard from or were questioned by speakers representing a cross-section of the town and county - lawyers, accountants, teachers, veterans, parents with small children, retirees who moved the area for peace and quiet, business owners, white, black, Hispanics. And, the frustration of the audience became more palpable as the evening wore on. The jeers grew louder as did the under-the breath muttering as the audience grew more frustrated by the lack of answers as well as the platitudes thrown out by the officials.

One of the Homeland Security officers, who said he was responsible for the field staff, spent several minutes talking about how proud he was to be in the same room as the citizens of Lawrenceville and Brunswick County. Never once did he attempt to address the question put to him – what steps did his officials take to verify the background of the UAC’s that would be placed at St. Paul’s.

With the exception of a local Episcopal Priest and one man, who by his own admission was surprised to find himself speaking in favor of the program, no one wanted the UAC’s on St. Paul’s campus.

Many of these same speakers pushed the federal officials to modify and house the children in the old Brunswick County Prison.

After Tota said that a federal court decision prohibited his agency from housing the UAC’s in a detention facility, a former Brunswick County jailer questioned the difference between St. Paul’s, which after modification would include secure dormitories surrounded by a high wire fence, and the detention facility with it dormitories surrounded by a high wire fence. Both sites had classrooms, food service facilities, recreational areas and medical facilities, said the speaker. He added, “it’s a lot easier to make a facility less secure, take down a fence, than to make one more secure.”

The fight over whether to bring unaccompanied alien children to Lawrenceville came to a head on June 12 when county and local officials learned that St. Paul’s College signed an agreement with HHS and that the first UAC’s would arrive on campus a week later, June 19. Most of the kids, according to Workie fall between the ages of 14 and 17, but at least 25 percent are under age 12. The come from three primary countries in Central America, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Without going into detail, Workie reminded the audience that these children come from countries where there is a “high level of violence. Children are witnessing their mothers being murdered, children are being raped, and children are being threatened left and right.”

President Barack Obama has called this a humanitarian crisis of epic proportion – at least 60,000 UAC’s are expected to enter the United States this year.

Over a decade ago, HHS inherited legal responsibility for providing care and custody of the children after they enter the country and before they are united either with family or repatriated. The sheer number of these illegal children entering the US forced HHS to find additional sites to house them, and that is why St. Paul’s college was contacted.

Tota said the project was seen as a way to resolve his agencies housing crisis while also helping the college overcome its financial problems. St. Paul’s was to receive $180,000 under the contract, and have many of its buildings brought up to code at federal expense.

Without a buyer or any potential source of revenue the college will shut down entirely as of Nov. 1, and with no one left on campus, Stith worries what will happen to the site, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. His fear is that vandals and squatters will take over and destroy the buildings.

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The three countries mentioned are EXACTLY where Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13 gang) began and still thrives, continually feeding their gang activity to this country. I rest my case.

I don't think this is over. I fully expect HHS to make an end run around the citizens of Brunswick and install these illegals in St. Paul's. That would be an ignominious end to a respected institution.

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