January 24, 2018

Small US town looks back on crucial decision

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Blocking child immigrants, with and without regrets

By Tina Griego
The Washington Post
LAWRENCEVILLE, Va. — It’s been five weeks since the meeting. The townspeople don’t need you to specify which meeting. There can only be one in which an outsider would be interested. The meeting during which the town of Lawrenceville in the county of Brunswick in the tobacco country of southern Virginia unequivocally rejected temporary housing for 500 Central American children seeking refuge.

In this largely African American community that prides itself on its hospitality, something was revealed that night: a full-throated, bared-teeth rage with which not everyone is comfortable or proud.

The circumstances that created that night’s fury were, in part, the result of mutual desperation. Federal officials needed some place to house the children and St. Paul’s, the town’s historically black college — no longer accepting students and all-but closed — needed money to pay its debts. In the blink of an eye, and unknown to most in town, a deal was struck. The children were to arrive less than a week later.

The description many residents used in their surprise was “shoved down our throats.” A thousand people, black and white, in a town of 1,400 packed the high school auditorium to make clear their displeasure with the federal government and its presumption.

More than a month later, the pros and cons of the plan play out in letters to the local paper, in carefully worded conversations and uncomfortable silences.

Identity and future

In Lawrenceville, the mayor, the sheriff, the college president — out of sorts, in one way or another, with each other — agree on one thing: What should have been a discussion of the merits of turning the campus into a secure shelter cartwheeled instead into the long-running argument over federal immigration policy. And immigration policy is never just about who and how many and under what circumstances we allow the foreign-born into the country. It is about the US future and identity and direction.

In this heat, the children cease to become children. They are, instead, called by the government acronym for unaccompanied alien children: UACs. Fear, the sheriff will later remark, “is the buzzword here, and it’s a big, big word.” Fear of the unknown, is how he describes it.

The residents of Lawrenceville share a distant kinship with the children who would have settled here with their cots and footlockers and three changes of clothing. People here know something about desperation. They know what it is to feel powerless, to be at the mercy of things beyond one’s control.

Poverty, unemployment

Lawrenceville is a rural community, a community where one in three residents lives in poverty, where unemployment is consistently running at higher rates than the state and country.

What about us, came the plaintive, angry cry that night. What about our children? So it is that the same man who says the vitriol on display reminded him of the backlash against integration, will also say: “I feel sorry for them, they’re children and they’re lost, but I don’t want them here. We need to take care of our own house before we take care of others.”

In need of help

Kelly-Rice fires off a letter to the editor, livid the town interjected itself into what she saw as a private contract between the government and a private school on private land. The lease, renewable every six months, could have helped the town, she writes.

Speculation arises that many of the people at the meeting were outsiders, activists who fomented open-mindedness into outrage. Not so, says Sheriff Brian K. Roberts, who raised the alarm and called the town meeting. The feds, with their failure to consult town and county officials before signing a lease with St. Paul’s, did that all on their own, he says.

“I wanted so much to remain open-minded and I tried,” Roberts says, “but they had to go and convince me they’re still the same idiots.”

Residents now greet the sheriff as hero or instigator.

In the days that follow, the president of the college, Peter Stith, sits in his near-empty office with its grand wood panelling and smell of mildew and laments the loss of what he believed was “a win-win” for everyone. He writes a check for US$200 to the volunteer fire rescue chief who complained at the meeting that the squad had purchased a ladder truck for the college and never received a donation in return. The government quickly reimburses the college the US$15,000 it had already spent trying to get the place ready for the children.

Stith will say he’s not giving up. He’s calling the mayor, the town manager, the sheriff, the county supervisors to see what it might take to get the feds to reconsider. And if that fails, he says, and no one swoops in to buy the college, he’ll ask the Board of Trustees to auction off the furniture. The bank will take over and the eight remaining staff members will lock up the doors and leave.


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