Local officials questioning new plan to house immigrant children at Lakewood center

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Washington, DC, December 31, 2015 | comments

Content originally published by the Denver Post on December 31st, 2015.

A day after the federal government's announcement it would send up to 1,000 unaccompanied Central American children to a building at its Federal Center in Lakewood in April, city officials and community activists were scrambling to respond.

"I'm still not 100 percent in the know," said Lakewood Mayor Adam Paul after a Thursday phone call with federal officials. "My main concern is local impact."

Paul was reassured that the federal government is responsible for all funding associated with the facility, but he is hoping to press the government for more information.

"What was reinforced to us is that this is a secured facility within a secured facility and that it is solely self-contained, and that the federal government is responsible for all the fees and impacts," he said.

The children, unaccompanied minors 17 and younger from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras who have crossed into the United States to flee poverty or child traffickers, will not attend local schools. They also will "not integrate into the local community," according to the agency.

Local immigration advocates have received an outpouring of calls from the community asking how they can help the Lakewood facility, which will be the largest of its kind in the country.

But the activists' efforts are colliding with federal guidelines that prohibit assistance from the public.

"The federal agencies supporting these facilities are unable to accept donations or volunteers to assist the unaccompanied children program," said Mark Weber, a Health and Human Services spokesman.

Instead, Weber encouraged potential donors tolook into other organizations nationally or in their communities that assist unaccompanied children.

Jennifer Piper, Interfaith organizer for the Quaker organization the American Friends Service Committee, which promotes nonviolence, said the community outreach gives her hope. She has heard only positive responses from Lakewood residents about the children's arrival.

"We are excited to welcome children to Colorado," Piper said. "I think the bulk of the children who are coming really have no other option and are excited to find a place that is safe that will provide them refuge."

Paul has heard mixed reactions.

"We have people wondering, 'Who are these kiddos?'" he said. "What happens to them? Are these refugees from the Middle East? From Mexico? What happens to them if they're not placed? We want to know more."

Because Paul said Lakewood doesn't have a say in the facility, he at least wants to promise his community timely, accurate and meaningful information going forward. He requested a community meeting to inform residents worried that the children's stay could become permanent.

Most of the children will not be placed in Colorado, Piper said, because of the state's sparse Central American community.

"At the end of the day, they're kids," Paul said. "So even folks on different sides of immigration recognize the humanity side of things. It's really challenging."

Last year, when the flood of children and teenagers crossing the U.S.-Mexico border was at the center of U.S. political debate, many Republican elected officials called for stricter border enforcement from the Obama administration.

But political reaction to the plan for the immigration center in Lakewood so far was muted among Colorado's congressional delegation. Not all responded Thursday to requests for comment.

U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, R-Greeley, who represents some nearby suburban areas, offered a comment critical of President Barack Obama's wider immigration policy: "The president failed to secure our borders, and now taxpayers will once again be stuck with the bill."

Democratic Reps. Ed Perlmutter, whose district includes the federal center, and Diana DeGette of Denver were more supportive of the Lakewood selection. So was U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet.

But DeGette said she would press the Obama administration to keep people informed about safety and how the Lakewood facility is working, while a Bennet spokesman said "the administration has to do more to address the root of this humanitarian crisis and the instability and violence in Central America."

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