CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia faith groups are brainstorming ways they could house some of the thousands of Central American children who have flooded the U.S.-Mexican border illegally in recent months.
Bryan Minor, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, said Pope Francis has declared the situation a “humanitarian emergency” and has asked Catholic organizations across the country to help house the children.
“Catholic Charities West Virginia … has been in constant communication with Catholic Charities USA in Washington, D.C.,” Minor said in a statement. “Catholic Charities West Virginia has offered to assist in relief and housing efforts in West Virginia.”
Since October, about 52,000 unaccompanied children have illegally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border from violence-stricken Central American countries, to be caught by authorities, according to estimates from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The influx of children has created a need for housing as children await court dates to determine if they should be sent back to their countries of origin.
Some cities and states have shown a reluctance to take in the children. Protesters in some towns have not welcomed them, lining the streets and raising concerns over disease and strain on local resources as reasons to resist detention centers in their towns.
Religious leaders said unaccompanied children might not be on their way to West Virginia any time soon. At issue, Minor said, is a directive from the U.S. government saying that housing centers should have at least 200 to 300 beds. The government also has requested that they be 50 miles away from a major metropolitan area, Minor said.
Minor said that, at most, the Charleston-Wheeling diocese could offer an 80-bed facility. He didn’t say where that facility would be.
He said that if children arrived in West Virginia, Catholic Charities would dispatch an immigration attorney from the Eastern Panhandle to handle cases. Catholic Charities’ Refugee and Migration office would also help with the situation.
Using the West Virginia Army National Guard’s Camp Dawson in Kingwood as a temporary shelter is also an idea that has been floated by various faith leaders. The camp housed victims of Hurricane Katrina in the aftermath of that 2005 disaster.
Jeffrey Allen, executive director of the West Virginia Council of Churches, said that if some children were to be housed at Camp Dawson, the organization would be ready to help. The Council of Churches represents 14 Christian denominations in West Virginia.
“I could see the council providing pastoral services, goods and needed items,” Allen said. “Churches are wonderful about pulling together and getting the critical supplies people need.”
A representative in Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s office said the state has no plans to house the children.
“We do not anticipate having anyone housed here,” said Tomblin spokesman Chris Stadelman. “We have not been ordered to, and, frankly, West Virginia is a small state and doesn’t have the facilities.”
When asked if officials had thought about Camp Dawson as a possibility, Stadelman repeated that West Virginia didn’t have the resources to house any of the children.
In 2005, Camp Dawson held 323 Katrina evacuees, more than the minimum of beds the U.S. government wants facilities to have to house refugee children now.
But reimbursing the state and other groups could be a challenge. The cost to house Katrina evacuees at Camp Dawson surpassed $1.41 million, though the Federal Emergency Management Agency did offer to reimburse most of that amount.
The Obama administration, as part of a $3.7 billion request to help manage the current unaccompanied children situation, requested $433 million for Customs and Border Protection to cover overtime costs and funding additional detention facilities for the minors. But the funding request is far from finalized and is currently being debated in Congress.
Lt. Col. Todd Harrell, spokesman for the West Virginia National Guard, said there are no plans to house children at Camp Dawson, and that it’s unclear where such a directive would come from because of the situation’s unprecedented nature.
The U.S. Administration for Children and Families, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, handles instances of unaccompanied alien children entering the United States.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Jack Suntrup at email@example.com or 304-348-5100.