RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The government is shopping for a new location to temporarily shelter hundreds of Central American children after residents and officials of a tiny Virginia farm town angrily protested the secretive selection of their community.
In a statement issued Friday, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services cited concerns in Lawrenceville, Virginia, in taking "this proposal off the table." The department said it would immediately look elsewhere to "house these vulnerable children."
Residents of the town in Virginia's southern tobacco belt complained at first that they were kept in the dark, learning about the proposal only days before the children were to arrive. They then voiced a range of other concerns, appealing to U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner and other members of the state's congressional delegation to come to their aid. The Democrat said it was "the right call."
"Collaboration and local support is absolutely key for the success of a project like this," he said in a statement to The Associated Press.
The decision came after officials overseeing the placement of a deluge of children and teenagers entering the U.S. met a hostile audience Thursday. The government had brokered a deal with St. Paul's College, which closed one year ago and was founded after the Civil War to educate black men and women in the segregated South, to house up to 500 children in dormitories.
More than 47,000 children, primarily from Central America, have been apprehended at the Mexican border since the start of the budget year. The number of minors coming to the U.S. has soared, with administration officials saying it's largely because of conditions in their home countries. But there's also a belief among some of the migrants that they would be allowed to stay once in the U.S.
A contrite panel of federal officials came to town Thursday in hopes of salvaging the plan, but they were met with an angry crowd of 1,000 who crowded into a high school gymnasium. Many arrived with signs reading "No illegal immigrants."
Aaron Smith, a Lawrenceville native who said he was a Marine veteran who served in Iraq, drew cheers when he chastised the federal officials for attempting to "strong-arm" the town.
"We do not want illegal aliens in our little town," he said Thursday in an interview outside the school.
St. Paul's President Millard "Pete" Stith said the visiting federal officials did a good job of dispelling rumors about the planned temporary shelter "other than they being Hispanic."
Asked if he thought race was an issue, he said, "Yeah."
Town and county officials, however, said the opposition was always based on serious concerns of public safety and security on the rolling, unsecured campus.
"As always, our first and foremost concern is with ensuring the safety and security of our town and in ensuring that our citizens are able to be involved in any major decisions that may impact our community," Town Manager C.J. Dean wrote in an email Friday.
Stith had said the shelter plan would bring important federal money and other revenue to the town and help keep the school open. It's up for sale and will run out of money by October. He acknowledged trust issues with local officials but said no one intended to "slip anything under the door."
"But then after you apologize just forever, can there be a common ground?" he asked.
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap.
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