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Rawlings-Blake voices concern over immigrant shelter

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Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake — who has gained a national reputation for welcoming Hispanic families to Baltimore — joined a growing chorus of Maryland officials Tuesday raising concerns over a proposal to turn a vacant office building in the city into a shelter for immigrant children largely from Central America.

Rawlings-Blake said she has "serious concerns" about an idea being explored by the Obama administration to retrofit the massive office complex on North Greene Street known as Metro West to help contain a recent surge in unaccompanied children who are crossing the border illegally.

The federal government is scrambling to find space to shelter the young immigrants, most of whom are fleeing violence in Central America. About 9,500 children were caught at the Southwest border in May — a 300 percent increase over the same period last year.

"I understand that it is an urgent concern of the Obama administration to find safe places for these young people," Rawlings-Blake told The Baltimore Sun. "We have to take a look at that and make sure we're not doing more harm than good by using a facility that is really not fit for the purpose."

Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Ben Cardin — both Democrats — have said they oppose the idea.

A sudden influx of children would likely add pressure to already strained city social services, schools and public safety resources. Maryland officials have said they don't yet know when such a facility might open, how many children would be housed or whether the administration is considering a temporary or permanent shelter.

Neither the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is coordinating the effort to care for the children, nor the General Services Administration, which controls the Metro West complex, has responded to questions from The Sun about the proposal.

The site, a few blocks north of the proposed $152 million mixed-use project called the Superblock, has been considered a potential cornerstone for the redevelopment of Baltimore's West Side.

The 1.1 million-square-foot complex was home to about 1,600 Social Security Administration employees until they were moved to another campus this year.

In Washington, Senate Democrats led by Mikulski on Tuesday proposed doubling the amount of funding available to address the surge in children, increasing spending to nearly $2 billion for shelter capacity and other services. That increase, which would come from other federal programs, was added to an appropriations bill that is, at best, still months from winning final approval.

Mikulski, the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, described the situation as a "humanitarian crisis that demands our immediate attention."

The full committee is expected to vote on the increase Thursday.

Metro West would be one of several sites across the country used to house the children. Other new shelters — including one at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas and another at Fort Sill in Oklahoma — have been set up to accommodate between 575 to 1,200 people.

Rawlings-Blake has gained attention beyond the city's borders for courting immigrants as part of her administration's effort to grow Baltimore by 10,000 families over the next decade. She won praise from advocacy groups for signing an executive order in 2012 that prohibits city police officers from asking about a person's citizenship status.

The mayor said her concerns about the site are consistent with her administration's broader goals.

"My focus is on making sure we find the best possible fit for those young people," she said. "They aren't joining our community. They are being temporarily housed until they can be connected with a responsible adult. If, God forbid, my child was separated from me, I would want them to be in the best possible facility. I don't know if the Social Security Administration building is that facility."

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat whose district includes the site, is reserving judgment on the idea.

"The proposal is still being developed," he said. "We have few details regarding what would be required in order for this site to meet the extensive health, safety and educational needs of unaccompanied minors."

Gov. Martin O'Malley has declined to comment on the proposal.

The General Services Administration, which manages federal property, began the process of selling the 34-year-old Metro West complex in August. It has solicited ideas from developers.

But before GSA can sell property, it is required by law to make sure that no other federal agency wants it. It must then offer a right of refusal to state and local governments.

The building must also be assessed as a potential homeless shelter and reviewed for environmental contamination and historic significance.

It's not yet clear which federal agency expressed an interest in the site. The Administration for Children and Families at the Department of Health and Human Services is charged with caring for the immigrant children. A department spokesman referred questions to FEMA.

Julie Gilbert Rosicky, executive director of the U.S. chapter of International Social Service, said that the children desperately need social services in addition to shelter. Rosicky said the federal government has yet to craft an adequate plan to offer that comprehensive care.

The group, whose U.S. chapter is based in Baltimore, is calling for the children to be placed with families while the government sorts out their future.

"They're children and they're not with their parents," Rosicky said. "We don't want to put kids in warehouses."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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