A charged but orderly hearing Tuesday evening drew a standing-room-only crowd of mostly supporters but also strong opponents of a Roman Catholic institute’s plans to temporarily shelter dozens of unaccompanied immigrant children from Central America.
Supporters at the hearing, held at Sacred Heart Church’s fellowship hall in Emsworth, said they were proud of Holy Family Institute — a longstanding agency offering a wide range of services to children and families — for agreeing to take in up to three dozen immigrants at a time, all of them 12 or younger, on a rotating basis until their immigration status is resolved.
The institute agreed to take the children as part of a wider government response to a surge of Central American children, unaccompanied by parents, traversing Mexico and then crossing U.S. borders illegally.
“I'm your typical blue-collar American,” said Walter Krymski of Emsworth, who said the institute helped him three years ago during “the roughest time of my life.” His only question about the immigration plan, he said, was: “Will you call me if you need any help?”
But opponents said the U.S. tax dollars going to shelter providers such as the institute should go instead to needy American children and questioned the institute’s assurances that the children would be pre-screened for disease and criminal backgrounds.
“There’s a concern that your compassion has some unintended consequences,” said Bob Howard of Marshall, citing the exploitation of child immigrants by smugglers earning covert payments. “What is your rationale in participating in a political operation that is enabling bad guys?”
Sister Linda Yankoski, chief executive officer of Holy Family Institute, agreed with residents who said the immigration system needed improvements, but said that was a matter for Congress and other elected officials.
She couldn’t fathom “why parents feel so desperate to send their children on that journey,” she said. “I just know right now there are children who are sleeping on the floor, and I have a bed.”
She also apologized repeatedly to Emsworth officials and area residents for not informing them sooner of her acceptance of a federal government request to house the children.
“I owe [Mayor Dee Quinn] such an apology for not calling” before she and other officials found out through the media. She said wants to keep the strong relationship between the institute and local officials. “I blew it and I’m sorry,” she said.
Sara Cuadra Berg said she received shelter from the Sisters of St. Joseph three decades ago when she came from war-torn Nicaragua as a teenager.
“It’s because of what you did for me that I am the person I am today,” she said. “I am the face of the children who are coming into this country. I came during a war. It was not my choice. ... This is your chance to tell a child you are worthwhile and you deserve to have a better life.”
Area resident Anastasia Jacoby contended that some of the children crossing the border worked for deadly drug gangs and worried about their impact on local children. “I have great concerns for their safety when you’re dealing with child soldiers,” she said.
Sister Yankoski said immigration officials are screening the children for behavioral issues and that those being sheltered here would be schooled at Holy Family Institute, not at public schools or in the soon-to-open high school elsewhere on campus, and would have most of their recreation on campus, although they would go on some outings such as to the zoo.
She noted that the institute also has to take precautions on behalf of the other children it serves, making sure the newcomers are free of infectious diseases as well as behavior problems.
In a videotaped message, Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik applauded the institute’s actions, saying the “Catholic Church responds to humanitarian crises ... because we are pro-life.” But he did acknowledge that it is valid to ask how the child-immigrant crisis erupted and for the nation to insist on secure borders.
A statement of support for the effort also was read on behalf of county Executive Rich Fitzgerald, and Mayor Bill Peduto issued a similar statement earlier Tuesday.
Peter Smith: email@example.com or 412-263-1416.