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Push for Mission immigrant minors center dropped

An official with the group seeking to place a center for unaccompanied immigrant minors in Mission said opposition to the plan from residents neighboring the proposed site has halted the proposal. At the same time officials of some Rio Grande Valley cities that already have such centers say they don’t understand what all the fuss is about.


On March 10 Othal E. Brand Jr., executive director of the Harlingen-based Valley Baptist Missions Education Center, told the Progress Times plans to place a center at the Valley Baptist Retreat on Stewart Road have been dropped.

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Mission Mayor Norberto Salinas put smiles on the faces of what was once a standing-room-only crowd of tense-faced petitioners after telling them not to worry, he also did not want an immigrant holding facility in Mission. Progress Times Photo

“As far as they’re concerned it’s over,” Brand said, referring to the decision by the Harlingen-based Baptist Child and Family Services, or BCFS, which already operates centers in several other Rio Grande Valley communities. “If the community doesn’t want them they’re not going to be there.”


Brand said the decision was made after he informed BCFS officials Mission Mayor Norberto Salinas told him a majority of the city council was opposed to the center after more than a thousand Mission residents signed a petition opposing it.


Despite the decision Brand said he suggested the BCFS continue to propose the site located just south of Business 83 as a “surge facility,” in the event so many minor immigrants arrive in the Rio Grande Valley at one time existing sites cannot accommodate them.


“So I’m still going to talk to these trailer parks. And I’m still going to do the things that’s got to be done to that place,” Brand said, referring to the Valley Baptist Retreat and what it would take to make it suitable to accommodate the unaccompanied immigrant children.


Brand said the BCFS has already suggested another location to the U.S. Department of Human Service’s Office of Refugee Resettlements, this time in a more rural area of the Rio Grande Valley he declined to disclose.


“It’s out in farmland so nobody can tell us, ‘It’s going to hurt the values on our property,’” Brand said, referring to the language contained in the petitions presented to Mission’s city council.


Though the overall numbers of undocumented immigrant apprehensions dropped in February to the lowest numbers since 2006, about 59-percent, or 56,000 people apprehended so far in the Rio Grande Valley in the Fiscal Year that started Oct. 1, 2016, were families or unaccompanied minors, per statistics published on the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol website.  The figure represents an 11 percent increase from the same period a year ago, per CBP data.


The Progress Times reached out to the mayors and city managers of each of five cities Brand noted already have facilities for unaccompanied minors, some with multiple centers, for their opinions on the impact the centers have had on their communities.


According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which contains the Administration for Children and Families, Office of Refugee Resettlement and Unaccompanied Children’s Program, there are currently 100 such shelters operating in 11 States. According to an ACF fact sheet, officials of cities where the centers are located, and center operators, the centers are self-contained where children receive their meals, schooling,  arts, recreation and religious opportunities on site.


Brand said the largest center in the nation is in Harlingen where 1,200 unaccompanied minors are served by about 500 employees.


Brand said the center has been there for nine years and has been so inconspicuous the city’s mayor wasn’t even aware of it’s existence until relatively recently.


“That is correct,” said Harlingen Mayor Christopher H. Boswell, in an email response to a Progress Times query about Brand’s comment and the center operated by the Valley Baptist Missions Education Center. “The VBMEC in Harlingen was housing unaccompanied minors for a long while without it being noticed until the surge [of unaccompanied children] two summers ago and then only because the press became interested in the subject.


“The facility in Harlingen has not been a burden on any city services including public safety and I am unaware of any incidents. It seems to be a very quiet, efficient operation,” Boswell said.


The mayor declined to say if the center is located near a residential area.


In McAllen there is a center operated by Upbring, an organization formerly known as Lutheran Social Services of the South. The center is located in a commercial area near the McAllen Commerce Center and the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs outpatient clinic.  The Progress Times is withholding the exact location of the center.


According to Robert Leal, Upbring’s executive vice president of residential programs, the center, formerly a rehabilitation and nursing facility, has been in its McAllen location since the fall of 2014. He said the facility can house up to 60 children aged 12 to 17 and also operates foster homes for children under 12.


In a recent phone interview Leal echoed McAllen City Manager Roel “Roy” Rodriguez’s opinion the center has had no negative impact on the city.


“Generally speaking this population is very easy to work with,” Leal said.


Leal was asked what he would say to the Mission residents who signed the petition opposing a similar facility in their community.


“Without drifting into any political rocks I would simply say that these kids have undertaken an arduous journey and they deserve a chance.”


The City of San Benito, with its population of approximately 25,000, has three centers for unaccompanied children, said Mayor Celeste Sanchez. Sanchez said she has visited the centers, each of which can house up to 200 children ages five to 15. She said the first opened about five years ago.  


Sanchez described the facilities as much like a private school.


“They’re nice, very nice,” Sanchez said. “The have dorms and someone like a dorm mother. They each have their own counselor and secretaries that are calling and trying to find their families. I think the most they stay is about three days while their families are located,” Sanchez said. “Now the children, we rarely see them. They are transported in and out of the center in vans and are not allowed to leave there.”


The mayor said while confined in the centers the children are kept busy.


“They’re in class. They’re learning English. They’re learning citizenship. They’re learning about the United States before they move on to their families,” she said.


And the mayor said the centers have had a positive impact on the local economy having provided at least 100 jobs to city residents.


“And they get paid well,” Sanchez said. “They’re not minimum wage jobs.      “The administration they go out and eat in the community and after work they shop at our H-E-B and Wal-Mart. It’s had a very positive impact,” Sanchez said.


And as far as she is aware the centers have not generated in any negative reports from law enforcement or other authoritative entities.


“None whatsoever. They’re children and they’re scared. They’ve arrived in a different country and they’re scared. And they’re well protected and well take care of and the don’t stay long,” Sanchez said.


Sanchez was asked, given the opportunity, what she might say to persons opposed to such a center in their community.


“I would say to them there is no fear in this,” Sanchez said. “And that these are children who need our help. And it’s the humanitarian thing to do. And as long as its allowable we should do it.”

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