Scuttled immigrant shelter site says HHS, neighbors are bigots
Complaints cite fair housing law
Community outrage forced the federal government to nix its plans to house illegal immigrant children at a defunct college in rural Virginia, but the school fought back this month with discrimination complaints accusing both the Obama administration and its own neighbors of bigotry.
St. Paul’s College and nonprofit Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME) of Virginia say local officials in Lawrenceville, Virginia, and surrounding Brunswick County stirred up racial animosity against the children. In a separate complaint, they accused the federal Health and Human Services Department of caving to pressure and canceling a lease, also violating anti-discrimination rules.
“No one should block someone’s housing opportunity based on race or national origin,” said Helen O’Beirne Hardiman, the fair housing director for HOME. “It’s unfair, and it’s completely illegal for government officials to step into a private deal and say we don’t want Central American children coming to this community.”
She and St. Paul’s lodged a complaint with the Housing and Urban Development Department, targeting the local officials, and filed another discrimination complaint with HHS’s own office for civil rights, arguing the department broke the law by canceling the deal.
Local officials bristled at the notion they did anything wrong, saying they merely asked for a community meeting so HHS and the college could explain their plans. More than 1,000 people showed up, and sentiment ran strongly against housing the children.
“I don’t have anything to hide or run from. I don’t think I did anything wrong,” said Brunswick County Sheriff B.K. Roberts, whom the complaints accused of stirring opposition. “I think the U.S. Constitution clearly says that … I have the opportunity for freedom of speech. I spoke to oppose. That’s what I did. I still oppose it.”
He said that his opposition to the plan was based on the federal government’s “mishandling” of the situation.
“There were too many questions left unanswered. There were too many inconsistencies,” said Sheriff Roberts. “It was just poorly handled by the federal government. The result was that we had a public forum … and the general sentiment there was opposition.”
The surge of children — more than 66,000 have crossed the border and been detained by the Homeland Security Department from Oct. 1, 2013, through Aug. 31 — has strained federal budgets and tested local governments in all sorts of ways, including having to face community backlash.
Some of the antipathy stems from reports of communicable diseases within the illegal immigrant population, but much of the backlash is a reaction to the broader illegal immigration debate, according to those on both sides of that fight.
Lawrenceville became one of the flashpoints for that backlash.
The public forum Sheriff Roberts and other local community leaders called saw more than 1,000 people show up, with sentiment overwhelmingly opposed.
“No way do I want to be living anywhere with armed guards and a security fence,” said Donna Lewis, who said she moved with her grandchildren from Washington, D.C., to Lawrenceville seeking a quiet life.
HHS had planned to send about 500 children, most of them males age 15 to 17, to the campus, where they would benefit from St. Paul’s dormitories, cafeteria, classrooms, gymnasium and athletic fields.
College President Millard “Pete” Stith thought it was a winwin — the feds needed the space, the college needed the money, and the community needed jobs. He alerted both town and county officials, whom he said didn’t give him any pushback.
“This is like manna from heaven,” he said. “I’m walking around with my chest sticking out, because I’m saying me and my partners in the county and town are going to be benefitting from this project. Silly me.”