Catholic Charities wants to care for about 50 children from Central America at a campus in Baltimore County, seeking a role in the immigration crisis even though the consideration of other sites in Maryland has met with fierce local opposition.
The organization plans to apply to federal officials to house the children at St. Vincent's Villa, a residential facility on Dulaney Valley Road, Catholic Charities head William J. McCarthy Jr. confirmed Thursday night.
McCarthy said housing the children would amount to his organization doing its job.
"Our role and our mission is to meet the needs of these children," he said. "This is obviously the result of things beyond my control — policies and political posturing that has left these children as victims."
The wave of 57,000 unaccompanied children who have arrived at the U.S. border since October has left the federal government seeking shelter for them across the country while their immigration status is sorted out. But news that sites in Baltimore and Carroll County were considered drew outcries from some local officials and residents.
At an empty Army Reserve Center outside Westminster that was briefly considered, someone scrawled poorly spelled graffiti, "no illeagles here."
McCarthy said he could not understand that reaction.
"I am puzzled in a way of the response to the needs of children," he said. "A civil society certainly has an obligation to care for vulnerable children."
The Catholic Charities proposal would be on a much smaller scale than government proposals that would have placed hundreds of minors in an unused Social Security office in Baltimore or at the army center in Carroll County. State and city officials have said they continue to work with federal agencies to look for a spot in Maryland that could accommodate several hundred children or more.
McCarthy said the magnitude of those plans might have caused some of the opposition. He also said that trying to set up housing for that many children in one place in the midst of a crisis could end badly.
"The scale they were talking about was enormous," McCarthy said.
Instead, he wants to place 50 or so children at the Timonium site, which had long been used to provide residential care for special-needs children. It now has spare room, McCarthy said, as his organization has shifted toward helping kids who are living with their families or elsewhere.
Catholic Charities developed the plan in response to a request from a federal agency that was looking for ways to house immigrant children before the crisis rose to the top of the national political agenda this summer.
The deadline for submitting a plan is Aug. 5, McCarthy said. He did not know when the first children could arrive if Catholic Charities is chosen but said the buildings could be quickly readied because they had previously been home to children.
McCarthy also said Catholic Charities has for the last six months been providing some services, including offering legal advice, at its Esperanza Center in Fells Point to about 50 unaccompanied children who have somewhere to live.
And the Board of Child Care of the United Methodist Church has already received grant money to house immigrant children at a home in Woodlawn. The organization is caring for about two dozen children there.
Despite the controversy, Gov. Martin O'Malley has said the country has a responsibility to look after the children, many of whom he said face "certain death" if they are sent back to their country.
A large number of the children are fleeing violence in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. The rate at which children are arriving at the U.S. border doubled over the past year.
The issue has presented politicians with a tightrope to walk. O'Malley opposed the Carroll County site as unfit — winning praise from a major immigrant organization — and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake also expressed concern about using the old Social Security office as a shelter. Both officials have said that while they opposed those locations, they support looking for an appropriate site to house children.
Aides to both politicians said Wednesday that places in the state are still being considered, but declined to identify their location or potential size.
For McCarthy, the issue is a simple one. He said Catholics have been caring for the children of immigrants in Maryland since the 1800s and that now was no time to flinch.
"We're really continuing to do what Catholic Charities has done," he said. "This is a humanitarian crisis, and … we know we can really help these children."