Carroll Co. officials push back on shelter for immigrant children
By By John Fritze, Christian Alexandersen and Blair Ames and Baltimore Sun Media Group
Jul 11, 2014 | 8:33 PM
Carroll County officials swiftly voiced opposition Friday to news that the federal government is eyeing a former military property near Westminster as a potential shelter for immigrant children — underscoring the challenge the Obama administration faces as it tries to manage a surge of new arrivals.
A day after federal officials notified local leaders it would conduct a preliminary assessment of the vacant Army Reserve Center, the Carroll County Board of Commissioners convened an emergency meeting and, along with Republican Rep. Andy Harris, pledged to resist efforts to use the site.
"Carroll County will not become a repository for Obama's failed immigration policies," said Commissioner Richard Rothschild. He said the idea is "in no way, shape or form approved by the governing body of this county."
The reaction in Carroll County, one of Maryland's Republican strongholds, comes as federal agencies struggle to keep up with an influx of unaccompanied minors — mostly from Central America — who are flooding across the southwestern border.
Some 57,000 children have entered the United States illegally since October, more than double the number than during the same period in the previous year, and officials expect the number to reach 90,000 by the end of September.
By law, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services must care for the children until they can be placed with relatives or caretakers in the United States, but the pace of border crossings has strained the agency's ability to handle what the administration and others have described as a humanitarian crisis.
The 3.8-acre site just south of the Westminster city line is the fourth location in Maryland known to have been reviewed by the federal government. The other three — a private school in Montgomery County, a former orphanage in Prince George's County and a vacant 1.1 million-square-foot office complex in Baltimore — were dismissed as unsuitable.
As in those previous cases, federal officials declined to confirm the property is being considered. Kenneth J. Wolfe, a spokesman for Health and Human Services, said officials are looking at sites suggested by the General Services Administration as well as by state and local governments. It's not clear who proposed the Westminster site.
"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," Wolfe said in a statement. "Facilities will be announced when they are identified as viable options."
The government has opened space for the children at some military facilities, including Lackland Air Force Base in Texas and Fort Sill in Oklahoma.
It's not clear how many children could be housed at the former Army Reserve Center outside Westminster, or when the administration will decide whether to move forward.
Local officials said the property, located about a quarter-mile from Route 140, has been vacant for years. There are two brick buildings on the site.
The review, first reported by The Baltimore Sun on Friday, might be preliminary, but it prompted strong reactions.
Harris, a Republican who represents portions of Carroll County — though not the site itself — threatened to use his position on the House Appropriations Committee to hold up any effort to house immigrant children there.
Del. Justin Ready, a Republican who represents Carroll County, described the influx of children as "an indictment of President Obama's failure to take border security and illegal immigration seriously."
News of the assessment came days after the White House asked Congress for $3.7 billion to respond to the surge, a proposal that has met with skepticism on Capitol Hill.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers is working on proposals to change a 2008 law that now requires the government to grant additional legal protections to immigrant children from countries that don't border the United States, with the hope the change would expedite their deportation.
Opposition to housing children in local facilities has sprung up in communities across the country. Officials and some residents near Dallas raised concerns about a proposal this month to convert a vacant school into a shelter. Talk of a potential shelter in Northern Michigan drew protesters to a public meeting this week.
Local opposition could pose a challenge for administration officials, who testified Thursday that if the number of children crossing the border continued at the rate seen earlier this year, agencies will run out of shelter space. That would force officials to hold more of them in detention facilities designed for adults.
Westminster Mayor Kevin Utz said he received an email from the federal health department Thursday night notifying him that the building would be evaluated. The mayor said his first reaction was to question whether the city was equipped to provide support services to handle an influx of immigrants.
The city has taken a "neutral stance" on the issue until it receives more information, Utz said.
County Commissioner Haven Shoemaker echoed Utz's concerns.
"I'm not without compassion for these people, who are largely children, but there's got to be a better way to handle a humanitarian crisis," he said. "I'm positive that Carroll County is not equipped to deal with the effects of such a crisis."
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat whose district includes the facility, reserved judgment.
A spokeswoman said Van Hollen supports the emergency funding request from the president, and that the government must "ensure the safe treatment of these young people while also making it clear that the United States does not have an open border."