Facing mounting opposition from state and local officials, the Obama administration has dropped the idea of converting a vacant office building in Baltimore into a shelter for immigrant children who have entered the country illegally, officials familiar with the decision said Wednesday.
Federal officials concluded that Metro West on North Greene Street, a huge complex on the edge of the city's long-standing Superblock redevelopment effort, was unsuitable to help accommodate the recent surge in unaccompanied children crossing the Southwest border.
"The site they had intended is not being considered at this time," said Caron Brace, a spokeswoman for the mayor. "However, the urgent need remains."
A spokesman for the Administration for Children and Families at the Department of Health and Human Services, which has led the effort to set up shelters for the children, declined to comment. But sources familiar with the decision said the agency is not currently considering Metro West or any other site in Maryland.
White House officials have described the spike in children crossing the border, driven largely by gang violence in Central America, as an "urgent humanitarian situation." Agencies are scrambling to find suitable shelter space.
About 9,500 children — mostly from Central America — were caught at the Southwest border in May alone, a 300 percent increase over the same period last year.
The administration has opened temporary shelters at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas and Fort Sill in Oklahoma.
The Social Security Administration used the 1.1 million-square-foot Metro West complex until this year.
Maryland lawmakers asked whether the 34-year-old buildings surrounded by busy streets were appropriate to house what could have been hundreds of children. They suggested the administration consider other sites, including the National Labor College in Silver Spring or Aberdeen Proving Ground.
Mikulski, a former social worker who began her career working with children, said she also encouraged the administration to enlist faith-based organizations to help the children.
The senator's opposition came as she and other Democrats unveiled the details of an appropriations bill that would increase funding for the children. That bill, which would set aside nearly $2 billion requested by the administration for shelter space and services, had been scheduled for a committee vote this week but was delayed indefinitely Wednesday.
Aides stressed that the two efforts were unrelated.
"Our first concern is always for the health and safety of the children, some of whom are as young as 5 years old," Mikulski said in a statement. "Metro West is an empty office building with no infrastructure for residential use. It's not an appropriate residence for hundreds of children."
Cardin discovered Metro West was being considered for a shelter during a routine check with the General Services Administration about the status of redevelopment efforts there. The GSA, which manages federal property, began the process of selling the complex last summer.
"It was inevitable that [the federal agencies] looking for a suitable place to temporarily house unaccompanied minors would come to the same conclusion that we did as soon as we heard of the initial plans," Cardin said in a statement. "The vacant Metro West office building was a highly vulnerable location not appropriate for housing minors — or anyone."
The influx of children comes amid a stalemate in Washington over an overhaul of the nation's immigration system — a system both parties say is broken.
President Barack Obama instructed agencies in March to study deportation policies, but then delayed the review until the end of the summer to give Congress more time to work on the issue.
The possibility of substantive change grew more remote with the stunning primary defeat Tuesday of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia. Though there is debate about the role immigration played in the vote, his loss to a more conservative challenger is likely to make some Republicans skittish on the issue.
Federal agencies had reached out to Baltimore-area faith-based organizations to gauge the region's ability to provide services. William McCarthy, the executive director of Baltimore-based Catholic Charities, said his organization was contacted by Health and Human Services roughly a month ago about the possibility of a large-scale shelter.
McCarthy said he stressed to federal officials his group's mission of providing a range of services — education, health care, mental health — and not just temporary shelter.
He pointed out that many of the children are fleeing violence in Central America and undertook a harrowing journey to cross the border.
"It's a traumatic event, one that would cause you to leave your country," McCarthy said. "Our concern would be to make sure that the plan, in addition to safety and shelter, was also designed to meet all the needs of the children."
The decision to pull the plug on Metro West appeared to have been made recently. A Health and Human Services document dated Wednesday and obtained by The Baltimore Sun notes the administration was still "waiting for official, signed agreements" between the HSS and the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the "sheltering of unaccompanied children at the Baltimore facility."
An HHS spokesman said by email he could not disclose the location of nonmilitary shelters being set up to house the children. Pressed on the point that Metro West was no longer being considered as a shelter site, the spokesman did not respond and then did not return follow up phone calls.
Gov. Martin O'Malley, speaking on the issue Wednesday for the first time, took no position on whether the downtown complex was an appropriate place for a shelter.
"That's a decision a local government would have to make," he said. "We as a state are willing to help any jurisdiction in the state that is willing to find a way to alleviate this humanitarian situation."
Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.
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