RICHMOND, Va. (TheBlaze/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."
Boys await medical appointments in a holding area where hundreds of mostly Central American immigrant children are being processed and held at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center on Wednesday, June 18, 2014, in Nogales, Ariz. CPB provided media tours Wednesday of two locations in Brownsville, Texas, and Nogales, that have been central to processing the more than 47,000 unaccompanied children who have entered the country illegally since Oct. 1. (AP/Ross D. Franklin, Pool)
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.
Aaron Smith, a National Guard sergeant and former U.S. Marine, told administration officials at a public meeting this week that the community did not want to become the location of a large illegal immigrant shelter.
“We talk slow around here and with a twang. But we say what we mean,” he said. "Let me talk straight into your eyes: We don’t want you here.”
Another resident, Pam Thomas, cited safety concerns.
“Right now we have a town—I can go home. I can get supper. At 9 o'clock at night I can come back to my office by myself, go in there and do work, come out at 11:30, get in my car and never worry about being harmed. I can’t do that anymore if y’all come,” she said. “You can’t put them over there and it’s not a prison anymore. It’s a closed facility.”
Smith later praised the federal government for "doing what they told us they would do" and take the concerns of residents seriously.
Breitbart has clips of some of the speakers at the public meeting in Lawrenceville:
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."
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.