California suburbanites are engaged in a fight with the federal government over its attempt to turn a residential building into a detention center for illegal-immigrant children.
The Department of Health and Human Services submitted an application to the city of Escondido’s Planning Commission to use a 35,200 square-foot facility to house almost 100 children. On Tuesday night in this suburb of San Diego, the city commission held a hearing to review the request and unanimously voted to oppose the application. Several hundred people filled the chamber hall to make their voices heard, and people at the meeting say the overwhelming majority opposed the application. The standing-room-only crowd spilled over into an adjacent room and nearby hallways, and onto the grass outside.
“You couldn’t park within two blocks of city hall,” says Jeff Weber, the chairman of the Escondido City Planning Commission. “One of our commissioners was late because he couldn’t get a parking place.” Weber says the event required a police presence, and one officer coached him on how to respond in case of a disturbance.
If Kitty Demry had missed a notice about the application placed on the building during a walk around the neighborhood with her husband, the application might have received less scrutiny. Demry, a longtime Escondido resident who lives about a third of a mile away from the facility’s proposed location with her young family, says that, at first, she didn’t think anything of it. She says she decided to pursue the matter only after discussing it in greater detail with her husband.
After speaking with a city official to gain more information and discovering that local officials did not know much about the shelter, Demry says she grew concerned. “Really, nobody knew about it,” Demry says. “And that more than anything is what terrified me.” Demry then created a flyer, made 150 copies, and began knocking on doors to spread the word. The information gained traction on social media, and soon public officials began to weigh in.
Mayor Sam Abed says he’s concerned that the children would not receive proper health screening and criminal-background checks before arriving at the proposed facility. “We feel that the federal government should keep housing them in federal facilities and not [be] sending them to the local small communities where land use is very limited,” he says. The Republican mayor emigrated to the U.S. from the suburbs of Beirut, Lebanon, and worked as an IBM engineer before entering political life. He’s running for re-election in November.
Abed says both Republicans and Democrats should be blamed for courting such illegal immigration. “The Republican wants cheap labor and the Democrat wants more votes,” Abed says. “We want people to come and work hard and realize the American Dream and contribute to the success of America versus just crossing the border and depending on government for help.” He says he made the effort to assimilate into the United States and thinks other immigrants should follow suit. “If you are an immigrant and your loyalty continues to be somewhere else, I don’t think it’s a good idea to come to America,” he says.
Demry says she doesn’t think it’s a good idea for the kids to stay in the Escondido building because it’s not suitable for children, and the shelter may endanger her own children. “I don’t think people want bad things to happen to kids, I think people want to protect their own kids,” Demry says. “I want to know that [the kids are] safe in the residential communities where they live, and I don’t think they will be — because nobody’s calling this what it really is: It’s a detention center.” She says she blames the federal government for instigating the problem. “It is a humanitarian crisis, but it’s being created by the federal government’s lack of doing their job: The federal government’s primary job is to protect our borders.”
Southwest Key, a nonprofit organization HHS has tasked with operating the proposed Escondido facility, did not return requests for comment. Facilities will be announced when they are identified as viable options, says Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for HHS’s Administration for Children and Families, in an e-mail. “In order to enhance the capability to transition unaccompanied children from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, facilities are being identified by the U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. General Services Administration as potential locations to increase the medical care and temporary sheltering capacity of HHS,” Wolfe writes. “While only a few facilities will ultimately be selected, a wide range of facilities are being identified and evaluated to determine if they may feasibly provide temporary shelter space for children.”
Weber says he thought that locating the proposed shelter in the heart of a residential-zoned area was inappropriate, and that this was the primary reason he and other commissioners rejected the HHS application. But, Weber says, America has a tradition of helping those in need. “I guess maybe it’s that legacy, we still reach out and feel we have to do something to help people,” Weber says. “Whether it’s the right thing to do or not in this case, God only knows.”
Weber says this was just the first step in the process, and that the planning staff will prepare a resolution that the commission will review at a July 22 meeting. Between 100 and 150 people spoke at the meeting on Tuesday night, which Weber says amounted to more people than he typically hears from at the meetings during an entire year. The group was well behaved, he says, and he adds that he had only one disturbance during the proceedings. “Holding these hearings is like a sports thing,” he says. “You play the game to find out who’s going to win.”
Demry says she was ecstatic about the commission’s decision, but did not appear prepared to claim victory. She says she understands that anything can happen when the federal government is involved, and explains that her opponents have already begun vilifying her as an anti-immigration activist. “Sorry, I want the federal government to uphold the law [and] that makes me a bad person,” she says. “I’m really tired of that part. I’ll go back to being a sleepy old housewife that raises butterflies, it’s okay.”
— Ryan Lovelace is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.