COMMACK, N.Y. — The possibility that a suburban New York church would play host to some of the tens of thousands of immigrant children illegally crossing the United States' border with Mexico to reunite with family is causing an uproar in one Long Island community.
The Rev. Dennis Walker says Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Commack would be able to pay off debts and create jobs if it took in about 40 children. But neighbors say the plan, details of which have yet to be released or approved, would be dangerous.
"I'm not prejudiced, don't get me wrong, but you know what, we have our own problems with our own people here," said Jerry Baggetta, a retiree who spoke on the front porch of his home just up the street from the church property. "What are we going to have to do? Live like prisoners and lock our doors and everything else?"
Sheryl Cambria, a special education teacher, told Newsday the proposal scares her: "I have two little kids. Who's to say my house is going to be safe?" New York City firefighter Michael Cantwell said: "It's basically going to be a hotel right next to my house."
About 63,000 unaccompanied children, mostly from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, entered the U.S. from October to July, double the number from the same period a year earlier. Many have said they are fleeing violence in their home countries. Once children are processed by the Border Patrol, they are placed in the custody of the government's Office of Refugee Resettlement. They stay at federal government shelters until they reunite with family members in the U.S. or move to longer-term foster care to await immigration court.
U.S. cities and towns have been asked to identify facilities where children can be temporarily housed. The federal government will cover the cost of preparing, operating and staffing them.
Federal data show New York has received 3,347 of the children this year, according to the U.S. Health and Human Services Department's Administration for Children and Families.
Walker declined to speak with The Associated Press when approached in the church parking lot, saying he had been inundated with telephone calls and interview requests after speaking with Newsday earlier. He emphasized that no final decision had been made on the proposal.
The minister told Newsday that misinformation is fueling community opposition.
"This is minimal impact on the community with substantial benefits" such as jobs for workers who would remodel the building to create the living quarters, he said. He said if approved, about 40 children, 4 to 17, would be housed at the church for between seven and 30 days. The children would be moving from federal immigration detention facilities to relatives in the New York area, Walker said; they would only leave the property for medical appointments or other important issues.
The church, about 40 miles east of Manhattan, sits on a busy highway in a middle-class suburban community, with shopping centers and restaurants nearby. The property includes the church and an adjacent school that had been used as a day care center. Walker said the day care center stopped renting space in June, and the immigrant children program could net the church $8,000 to $10,000 a month.
The plan was proposed by Lutheran Social Services of New York, which would cover the cost of the renovation using federal funds, according to Newsday. A person answering the telephone at the agency declined to speak to the AP.
Advocates for immigrants said the opposition is a knee-jerk reaction.
"These are children, for heaven's sake," said Maryann Sinclair Slutsky, executive director of Long Island Wins, a nonprofit organization that focuses on immigration issues. "These children are fleeing horrific violence, and many are trying to reunite with their parents."
She said the church is making preparations to take them in.
"I am sure the plan is to provide appropriate care," she said. "They aren't going to be roaming the streets causing havoc."
Bruce Ettenberg, president of the Commack Civic Association, called the uproar premature. He said his organization will hold a community meeting Tuesday to discuss the facts.
"The church has not made a decision," he said. "There's nothing to do until they make a decision. Until then, it's all speculation and rumor. Nobody can make a decision until you know all the facts."