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Charlotte shelter proposed for unaccompanied immigrant children

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Charlotte could soon help in the humanitarian crisis involving tens of thousands of unaccompanied immigrant children pouring across the U.S. border.

Federal officials are considering Charlotte for a 50-bed “day shelter” that will temporarily house unaccompanied immigrant children who are waiting to be reunited with families already in the United States, local leaders said Thursday. Similar proposals have been controversial in other cities.

It’s believed as many as 23,000 children are being detained by the federal government while awaiting reunification with their families.

News of the shelter plan was revealed Thursday during the kickoff of a community initiative to muster support, financial resources and legal expertise to help the children and their families, who are facing fast-tracked deportation proceedings.

Details remain vague and a proposed site has not been named. However, Caldwell Presbyterian Church on East Fifth Street has offered to host the shelter in a 10,000-square-foot building that was most recently used as an overflow shelter by the Salvation Army. The total cost isn’t known, but backers expect the federal government to cover the bill.

Organizers say the shelter could open as early as October. The children would stay in foster care at night and return to the shelter by day for schooling and legal orientations, officials said. It’s predicted the average stay would be 15 to 45 days, or until legal paperwork has been completed.

Though the shelter would be located in Charlotte, children staying there could be awaiting reunification with family in other states, officials added.

Federal officials have said North Carolina is already home to about 1,200 unaccompanied children who came to the United States as part of the border crisis. All are with family or guardians as they await deportation proceedings.

Shelter efforts in some states have faced resistance, including mayors and governors who rebuffed attempts to house the unaccompanied children in their communities.

Gov. Pat McCrory has not taken a stand on locating shelter for unaccompanied children in North Carolina, nor has Charlotte Mayor Dan Clodfelter.

City Council member John Autry and Mecklenburg County commissioner Pat Cotham attended the Thursday meeting where the shelter plan was announced. The 30-plus community leaders included representatives of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, a half-dozen houses of faith, and officials connected with nonprofits that help immigrants of all nationalities.

Another meeting of the group has been scheduled for next week, and the goal is to attract representatives of other houses of faith, officials said.

Autry recently asked city staff to study what Charlotte can do to help immigrant children involved in the crisis, including those whose parents can’t be located. He said that study discovered there is little the city can do, as far as providing resources.

Clodfelter said in a statement that he was aware of Autry’s inquiry and “it is our understanding that local nonprofit agencies are taking the lead on providing services to these children.”

The group that met Thursday is working to create a plan to educate the community about the children, while also recruiting expertise and resources to help the families. Chief among the needs is local attorneys willing to work pro bono to represent the families in Charlotte’s immigration court.

Charlotte attorney Tin T. Nguyen of Central Law Group is a key figure in the community initiative and among the things he is seeking are proclamations from Charlotte and Mecklenburg County announcing that this is a “welcoming community” willing to help the children.

“A lot of cities have done this. Atlanta and even Columbia (S.C.) have done it, and if Columbia can do it, there’s no reason we can’t,” Nguyen said, adding that the shelter in Charlotte is aimed as a show of community compassion.

“These children are currently in detention, which is like jail. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like the idea of kids being held like criminals.”

Cotham said she, too, hoped the county would issue such a proclamation in support of the children. “Educating people in the community on this issue is important because there is a lot of fear and a lot of misunderstanding,” she said.

“For a lot of my colleagues (on the county commission), this is not even on their radar. We need to build this (initiative) to includes hundreds and hundreds of people.”

The attempt will likely face resistance from at least one commissioner.

“If they plan on asking me whether I would accept them, the answer is a clear ‘no.’ Not one,” Mecklenburg County commissioner Bill James said in an earlier interview.

CMS reports it is already seeing the impact of the border crisis, with double the number of immigrant students registering for classes this spring compared with last year (400 this year, compared with 200 last year). That includes immigrants of all nationalities, officials said. However, many are from Honduras, which is a nation at the heart of the border crisis, CMS officials said.

Pastor John Cleghorn of Caldwell Presbyterian Church says simply offering the children a place to stay is not enough. His hope is that houses of faith throughout the region will supply volunteers to help the children during their shelter stay.

“I saw wonderful common ground at the meeting that we as Christians can rally around,” Cleghorn said. “This is an opportunity for the faith community to step up and demonstrate our shared values of hospitality, a value that is shared across faith communities.”

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