By Tom Gilchrist
For The Advertiser
VASSAR — Wolverine Human Services officials say Central American child refugees could arrive here in “a couple weeks,” though protesters didn’t roll out a welcome mat outside Vassar City Hall on Monday night.
“I want them to go home where they came from,” said Julie Blossom Hunt, 48, of Vassar, one of several dozen people at a pro- test held by Michiganders for Immigration Control and Enforcement, or MICE.
“I’m a big believer in going (to their home countries) and ministering to them, and helping improve their quality of life for them and for their future.”
Monday night’s gathering featured a number of counter-protesters who said they support housing refugees in Vassar, where about 115 jobs will be created if Wolverine lands two contracts to house 120 refugees at its Vassar location, according to Wolverine Senior Vice President Derrick McCree.
Neither contract is signed and official yet, he said, but he added that refugees could arrive within “a couple weeks” if contracts get signed without any setbacks.
McCree said about 15 people have been hired recently who could work with the refugees. He said he’ll answer questions tonight at a 6 p.m. public forum at Vassar High School.
Tens of thousands of children have crossed illegally into Texas in recent months from Central American countries such as Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Most are males and older than 14, according to federal sources. The federal government reports the youths flee to the U.S. to join family members already here, escape abuse or exploitation, or seek employment or educational opportunities.
McCree said the youths housed in Vassar will be males from ages 12 to 17. Wolverine will “provide medical care, feed them, teach them some survival skills and do trauma counseling” until federal officials can place the children with family members in the U.S., McCree said. At that point, Wolverine workers also would travel with the refugees to the youths’ new residences.
Hunt, however, used a megaphone Monday night to urge protesters to oppose bringing refugees to Michigan.
“We can’t stop it once they’re here,” said Hunt, who said she moved back to her hometown of Vassar from the Los Angeles area last year.
“We were told that out at Wolverine (off Enterprise Drive), it’s not going to be a locked-down facility,” Hunt told the crowd. “If those kids choose to walk away and start roaming around our community, we’re going to start having an increase in crime like we saw in L.A.”
Dan Zuzula, 55, of Vassar Township, said he opposes using taxpayer money to pay to house illegal immigrants.
“I’d love to have my grandchildren get better schooling here in Vassar instead of having to pay for illegals,” Zuzula said.
While grocery stores and other businesses might see increased revenue associated with feeding and caring for 120 refugees, Zuzula said “I won’t see any residuals in my pocket.”
McCree said Wolverine officials told Vassar city leaders that “if we land these two contracts, we could see 115 more people coming into the local economy, spending money at the McDonald’s or the gas stations, or everywhere else.”
Rev. Monica M. Villarreal, pastor of Salem Lutheran Church in Flint, said refugee children must be treated with respect, dignity and justice once they arrive here. She said the Bible indicates Jesus Christ and his family fled to Egypt when threatened by violence from King Herod.
“That’s how I see it — to remember that Jesus himself was a refugee and experienced something like what these kids are experiencing,” Villarreal said.
Ryan Bates, Dearborn-based executive director of Michigan United — which bills itself as fighting for the rights of illegal immigrants — also came to Vassar on Monday as a counter-protester.
“We want to get out the message that these are children fleeing horrible violence in Central America,” Bates said. “They are refugees who deserve to be treated with compassion and respect. Honduras has become the murder capital of the world. It’s more dangerous than Afghanistan or Iraq.
“Young boys are being forced to join drug gangs. There is an epidemic of rape and sexual assault — girls as young as 10 years old being raped and becoming pregnant.”
If federal officials can’t reunify the refugees with a relative already in the U.S., they would seek a foster parent willing to care for the children, according to McCree.
Bringing refugees to Michigan won’t help an already struggling economy, according to Nick Schlatter, 26, of Tuscola County’s Wells Township.
“We have people here in Saginaw, Flint, Bay City and Tuscola County who don’t have jobs, and we’re bringing people who are going to undercut their wages,” Schlatter said.