Emotions are running high in Emsworth, where the Holy Family Institute has announced that it will take in up to three dozen child immigrants from Central America who have crossed the U.S. border illegally.
The Catholic nonprofit will house the unaccompanied minors while they wait to be placed with a family member or foster parents. The children will be under the age of 12. Sister Linda Yankoski of Holy Family plans to hold a public forum at 7 p.m. July 29 to address area residents' concerns about the institute's plans.
"A lot of community members are concerned about the disease and drug cartel involvement these children could bring," said Emsworth Mayor Dee Quinn. "The news was quite a shock."
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 52,000 children have been caught crossing the border between Mexico and the United States since October.
The institute has released no timetable for when the children will arrive. The Department of Homeland Security takes care of initial medical screenings and deportation papers; the Department of Health and Human Services handles immunizations and shelter placement.
Holy Family will operate as one of those shelters, planning to provide, on average, 35 days of care. Ultimately, family members or more permanent sponsors take custody while the children await the outcome of their deportation proceedings.
"We have agreed to take in the most vulnerable, the very young children under the age of 12, who make up about 20 percent of the migrating children," the institute says on its website. "Many of these children are fleeing violent situations and have endured a long and perilous journey. We will provide the children with food, clothing, housing, education, counseling and recreation.
"Holy Family Institute will accept children once they have been screened for communicable diseases and have had a mental health evaluation. HFI will not accept children who must be quarantined or are in need of psychiatric services. The children will be given all needed childhood vaccinations while in care.
"Unfortunately, these children are being viewed with distrust and as perpetrators of some crime, rather than as the young, frightened children who have been introduced to injustice and abuse at an early age," Holy Family said.
That distrust is evident on the streets of the borough along Route 65 and the Ohio River. "What really worries me is the turnover -- every 30 to 60 days we're facing a new batch of kids we know nothing about," said Robert Keller, the owner of Eclectic Arts and Objects Gallery. "It's like every month, putting one bullet in a gun and putting it to your head."
Furthermore, Mr. Keller worries about the dangers even a younger group could pose to Emsworth.
"Everybody has the same issue that I do. We know that gangs have 8- and 12-year-old members. We can't look at that age group the same way that we look at kids in a more civilized country."
Holy Family said that as a Catholic institution, it has a duty to help those in need, whether they are American or foreign-born.
"I'm a little disappointed that people have said that we're not reaching out to our American children, as we serve thousands of them every year," said Sister Yankoski. "But we were called to do this, and feel that children are children."
Bishop David Zubik issued a statement Saturday strongly supporting Holy Family and the affirming the need to shelter the children.
"It has been reported that some of these children are fleeing violence," he said. "The current law requires that they receive a hearing to determine whether they are in fact refugees fleeing grave danger. Whether they are traveling because of poverty, or violence, or with the hope of reuniting with relatives on the other side of the border," they should be protected. "Followers of Jesus are called to protect these children and help them because they are very vulnerable and defenseless against any abuse or misfortune."
Many agree that young children should be viewed as victims, not threats.
Kevin Wisniewski hears every grumble from behind the counter of Chev & Rachel's Family Diner, and he doesn't have any problem with the children's presence.
"It's going to be good for those kids," he said. "I'm not at all concerned about them having any kind of disease. Hadn't even thought of that."
U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, the Democrat whose 14th Congressional District includes Emsworth, has heard the complaints of residents who are against Holy Family's plan.
"First of all, we're talking about children who are, at most, 12 years old," he said. "I have to believe that once people have access to accurate information, comments like those will stop."
Extensive Health and Human Services exams and vaccinations are intended to eliminate any chance of disease in the unaccompanied minors. Additionally, Holy Family pointed out in a statement that the children are actively fleeing gang and cartel violence and therefore are unlikely to be proponents of it.
"Most people who are fair-minded are going to see this for what it is," Mr. Doyle said. "The idea that our city is one of the cities that has reached out to these children ... that does my heart good."
Emma Brown: firstname.lastname@example.org
First Published July 19, 2014 12:00 AM