The plan of the federal government to house some of the children and teenagers caught illegally entering the country in Lawrenceville, Virginia, a small tobacco-farming town, was tabled earlier this week after backlash from local officials and residents. A public meeting is being held Thursday to discuss these concerns.
“I was just shocked,” Brunswick County Sheriff Brian Roberts told NPR. “The way this process has been handled puts more fear in our eyes, because it’s been shoved down our throat.”
Roberts said he worries about the “500 kids unaccounted for — illegal alien children in my little sleepy town. I just don’t think it’s the right fit for this community.”
The plan was to house the immigrant children that came in a recent border-crossing surge from Central American countries on the closed campus of Saint Paul’s College, which currently sits empty.
Some residents expressed their worry about the influx of these immigrant teens:
At Pino’s Pizza downtown, Emily and Derek Lewis say they and their children live just across the street from Saint Paul’s, so the notion that migrant teens out on their own will be staying there makes them a bit uneasy.
“Kids find ways of getting out of places. It just happens,” Emily says.
“I was a teenager,” Derek says. “I learned how to get out of my school. The No. 1 concern we have is the potential for shenanigans and the potential for crime.”
The Lewis’ say they’ve been reassured by a federal official that the runaway rate at immigrant shelters is less than 1 percent. Still, a couple booths over, Joanna and Frederick Pritchett have other concerns.
Safety concerns aside, other residents disagree with the government paying for those entering the country illegally to live in their town.
“We’ve got people right here in town that don’t have anywhere to lay their heads,” Joanna Pritchett told NPR.
One of the positives some residents in Lawrenceville see with the children and teens coming to town is the possibility of jobs. Just having the employees from several federal departments in town has already resulted in more business.
“They have been to the restaurants,” Town Manager C.J. Dean told NPR. “They been to the gas stations. They been to the car wash this morning. You know, they been to Dollar General store buying stuff, so there is already some small economic activity.”
Kenneth Wolfe, spokesman for the Administration for Children and Families, said the plan was put on hold Monday to allow the community to discuss it. A public meeting is scheduled for Thursday to bring up the housing plan again.
Though the public is being informed about various aspects that would come with such a plan, whether it goes forward or not is not technically up to them, because the college campus is privately owned, NPR reported.
Currently, many immigrant children and teenagers who entered the U.S. illegally are being held on an interim basis at military bases while the federal government determines where to house them.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.