VASSAR — Competing voices at a standing-room-only meeting Wednesday night urged Vassar residents to show the nation how to welcome — or reject — undocumented Central American child and teenage immigrants that Wolverine Human Services hopes to house in the city.
Derrick McCree, Wolverine senior vice president, told several hundred people at an informational meeting in Vassar High School’s cafeteria that Vassar has “the opportunity to set the tone for the nation, to say ‘A community and its partners can come together through adverse circumstances and figure out ways to work through things, and come to some form of agreement to provide services that are in need.’ ”
Tens of thousands of children and teenagers have crossed illegally into Texas in recent months from Central American countries such as Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. The federal government reports the youths flee to the U.S. to join family members here, escape abuse or exploitation, or seek employment or educational opportunities.
President Barack Obama has asked Congress to authorize $3.7 billion to cope with the surge in unaccompanied minor migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
McCree, speaking at the meeting hosted by the Concerned Citizens Committee, said Wolverine hopes to house up to 120 immigrants — males from ages 12 to 17 — for up to one month at a time in Vassar. The youths would come primarily from Guatemala, El Salvador andHonduras, and would receive medical care and basic education before going through immigration courts or being returned to their home countries.
McCree referred to the group as “children … fleeing harm’s way.” But Tamyra Murray of Saginaw County’s Blumfield Township, organizer of Michiganders for Immigration Control, or MICE, called them “illegal immigrants,” and told Vassarites they can keep them out of town.
“We hope that across the country, people are going to see what we’re doing and do the same thing. It’s time to put the responsibility back into the lap of the (Obama) administration — not into our laps or our pockets,” said Murray, drawing applause from an audience that occasionally interrupted speakers during the meeting.
City police escorted one man from the cafeteria after he emerged from the audience and began shouting comments during McCree’s presentation.
“We are under military attack!” the man — walking into the middle of the crowd — yelled at McCree. “Don’t tell me to be quiet during a military attack!”
Murray noted a move by League City, Texas, where the City Council voted 6-2 on Tuesday to ban undocumented children from entering the city.
“We could do the same thing here,” Murray told the Vassar audience. “We don’t have to stop. Even if Wolverine decides to do this, we could stop it two months down the road.”
Asked after Wednesday’s informational meeting what he thought of League City’s move, Vassar city Councilman Dan Surgent said “I don’t know if we have the authority to do that. I don’t believe we can do that.”
The next Vassar City Council meeting is a special meeting at 9 a.m. Monday, though the immigrants issue isn’t listed on the agenda.
McCree told the audience Wednesday that Wolverine hopes to house the Central American children by signing a contract with Heartland Alliance of Chicago, which would contract with the federal government. But U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, in a statement issued Thursday, noted “No final decisions have been made by (the Department of Health and Human Services) as they continue to review Wolverine’s application as a sub-contractor under … Heartland Alliance. Additionally, many other facilities across the U.S. have sought to provide temporary housing, in addition to Wolverine.”
When asked by The Advertiser on Friday if he expects Wolverine to win approval to house the immigrants, McCree said “I thought — yes — we expected to be approved going into it, but again, I don’t know the criteria for acceptance, so we’re kind of relying on Heartland Alliance and their expertise to get us approved and we’re confident they can get it done because they have a 500-bed contract already and they pretty much know how to do it.”
McCree said Heartland Alliance serves children from across the world but that Wolverine will limit those children housed in Vassar to “bilingual Spanish-English type clients, and that we (do) not want to take kids from China and other areas of the world.”
Wednesday’s informational meeting drew media members from newspapers, radio and television stations, and websites. Marisol Ramos and Luz Meza, wearing T-shirts promoting a website, said they drove up from Detroit, and stood in the cafeteria during the meeting holding posters reading “Welcome Refugee Children.”
Lou Smallwood of Tuscola Township, one of seven speakers, told the audience he is “opposed to illegal immigrants, storming our borders, demanding to be moved to the front of the line.”
“I came here to say that I, for one, demand our federal government enforce existing immigration laws and secure the border,” added Smallwood, drawing applause from the audience.
Wolverine Human Services, based in Grosse Pointe Park, has opened a number of facilities in Vassar — the first being Pioneer Work and Learn Center in 1988. About 150 male and female youths from 40 Michigan counties now reside on the Vassar Campus, according to McCree.
State Sen. Mike Green spoke on Wednesday, saying Wolverine “has been a good partner with Vassar for a long, long time.” Green, however, urged “stakeholders” such as Wolverine, the city of Vassar and the Vassar Public Schools to be “transparent about the process” regarding the possibility of housing immigrants.
“They have to be open to us, and let us know what they’re doing, and share with us, and give us options, and give us a voice in the decisions that are being made,” Green said.