HAZLETON — U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, who will travel to the U.S.-Mexico border this week, said Monday the border is moving closer to home — possibly as near as the former Min-Sec minimum security prison building downtown that might be used to house undocumented children between the ages of 5 and 17.
Barletta, R-Hazleton, told the media at a news conference that a group called the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants has made inquiries about certain facilities and their availability to be used to house many of these minors.
And Barletta says he has concerns about the children coming into the country. He worries about the accuracy of their ages, whether they are carrying infectious diseases and whether background checks are being done on the people accepting them.
“This is not appropriate, not for Americans and not for these children,” he said. “And, we don’t even know exactly who we are dealing with.”
The congressman said the organization “is not some random, shadowy organization.” He said the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants is well known, and has a long-standing relationship with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for exactly this purpose.
“This is a group that calls itself a ‘refugee resettlement organization,’ ” Barletta said. “In fact, the group has asked specifically about a facility right here in Hazleton. In fact, it is right across the street from where we are standing right now: the Min-Sec Hazleton Center.”
Reached afterward, Lavinia Limon, president and CEO at the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, confirmed her office has looked into the Hazleton location, but no zoning permit has been sought. She said several steps need to be taken before the organization considers leasing the space.
“We are doing our due diligence and part of that will include contacting local agencies and seeking input from the community,” Limon said. “We are not ready to proceed at this time. We want to know how the community might feel about having this facility in their community.”
Limon said the average stay for a child averages 30 days before the child is placed with relatives or with people who have been vetted by her organization. She said the children would range in age between 12 and 17, would undergo medical screenings and receive educational assistance.
She said the children are always escorted and are not free to come and go from the facility. She said a decision on leasing the Hazleton facility won’t be made until August.
Hazleton Chief of Police Frank DeAndrea attended the news conference and he commended Barletta for bringing the issue to light, even though the city probably can’t prevent the facility from opening as long as it meets zoning requirements.
“But there’s no doubt we are looking into it,” DeAndrea said. “But the city’s hands are tied. This problem is much larger than them wanting to come here and use this facility.”
The chief recalled the difficulties brought to the city when Min-Sec was open. He said he has similar concerns about this new proposed use of the building. DeAndrea also said the organization has filed for a zoning permit with the city.
“This is a security issue for the city,” DeAndrea said. “We don’t have enough police officers to deal with the issues we’re already faced with every day. If a few hundred kids come here, how can we be expected to handle it?”
DeAndrea said the bottom line is that cities such as Hazleton need help in handling the situation.
Barletta said the U.S. Border Patrol is moving children into the country at a rapid rate.
“We truly do not know if we are transporting infected children, who very likely haven’t been vaccinated,” Barletta said. “The federal government is not conducting background checks on the parents many of the children are meeting once they arrive in the country. And we don’t know if a child who says he or she is 17 is in reality that age.”
Limon said Barletta is right that the children are undocumented with no parents and some do have health issues and would be checked for any communicable diseases.
“These are very sad cases,” Limon said. “They are escaping horrific violence in their home countries and their journey out of those countries has been bad. They are often victims of physical and sexual abuse. We respect their decisions to leave those situations, and we want to see them treated with respect and dignity.”
She said her organization will do all it can to minimize any negative impacts on the community.
“Anyone would want their children treated properly,” she said. “And we want to know what the sentiment in the community is.”
Barletta said there is too much at risk for him to stand by while the borders are wide open, national security is at risk and the health and welfare of these children and U.S. citizens is at stake. He said the situation has quickly become a “humanitarian crisis,” as the federal government scrambles to figure out what to do with the minors, most of whom have come from Central American countries.
‘Running day cares’
“Our borders have never been truly secure, but now that our agents are busy essentially running day care centers, at this moment they are more porous than ever,” Barletta said. “The United States government has become complicit in what amounts to human trafficking.”
At the hearing later this week, Barletta said he wants answers to several concerns:
• What health screens are being conducted?
• What assurances are there that the minors being transported to communities within the U.S. are not carrying contagious diseases?
• What background checks are being done, both on the individuals being transported and on the people who plan to take custody of them?
• Where in America will they be housed?
“We now know that Hazleton could be on the list,” he said. “Where else? Who will be paying for this? And why is this just America’s problem?”