HAZLETON — The poem at Ellis Island includes the line, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Just don’t bring them to Hazleton.
Stacie Blake, director of government and community relations at the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, said Wednesday the agency is no longer seeking a site in Hazleton to house undocumented refugee children.
Earlier this week Hazleton officials and U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, a former Hazleton mayor, publicly criticized the proposal.
“We have received numerous inquiries from cities in other states about locating centers,” Blake said. “Community leaders from these cities said they are interested in helping these children and they see having a center as having a positive economic impact on their communities.”
Blake said her office never received any inquiries from Barletta’s office about its work.
Barletta, R-Hazleton, called the decision “welcome news” for Hazleton and Pennsylvania.
“Ever since I made public that the former Min-Sec Center was identified as a possible location for the minors who had crossed our borders illegally, I have been hearing from constituents and community leaders expressing their concern,” he said. “I made it clear that I agreed with them and was opposed to the plan. I am glad that our voices have been heard.”
Blake said that once the news that Hazleton was being considered for a refugee center, the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants “did not receive any positive overtures from the Hazleton area.”
She said the decision to remove Hazleton from the list of possible locations had nothing to do with Barletta’s strong opposition.
“We have not talked to the congressman,” Blake said. “Nor have we heard from anyone in his office.”
Blake said many cities said they see having a refugee center as a positive for their communities.
“The funding comes from the federal government,” Blake said. “And there will be a significant number of full-time jobs with benefits at each center.” Blake said the communities seeking consideration wanted to know how they could help the children.
The organization had done some preliminary inquiries about locating a center in the former Min-Sec/Altamont Hotel Building on West Broad Street, Hazleton.
Lavinia Limon, president/CEO of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, said the shelters are needed to temporarily house undocumented children from Third World countries who have fled their homelands to “escape horrific situations.”
Lee Williams, vice president of the organization, called the situation “a humanitarian crisis.”
Williams said the children, most between the ages of 5 and 17, have experienced some traumatic events in their lives. It is critical, he said, that they receive needed support and treatment.
Barletta said Limon confirmed the organization will look elsewhere because of general opposition from the community. Blake said there are no other locations in Pennsylvania under consideration.
When he learned that Hazleton was being considered, Barletta said that he had a number of serious concerns that caused him to oppose the proposal, such as background checks, infectious diseases and the impact on communities and schools.
He said Wednesday the pressure resulting from the massive flood of unaccompanied children crossing the border continues to increase.
“This problem has not ended because one group has taken one town or state off its list,” Barletta said. “This is an ongoing problem – with ongoing consequences – and it was foreseeable and preventable. My question is: Why is this only America’s problem? What about the responsibilities of the countries from which these minors came?”
Hazleton Mayor Joseph Yanuzzi said he and many officials and residents of the city opposed the idea of a refugee center coming to Hazleton from the beginning.
“We have legal immigrants here and they are doing fine,” Yanuzzi said. “We are opposed to illegal immigrants coming in; we don’t want illegals here.”
Yanuzzi said from what he understands the children are brought here and their parents or family members will follow. He said the city had many problems with the Min-Sec facility, having been approved as a drug treatment center that became a minimum security prison.
“We did not want to go through that again,” Yanuzzi said. “The problem is they are brought here illegally and that shouldn’t happen. We have fought illegal immigration from the beginning.”
Barletta will take part in a field hearing of the Homeland Security Committee today near the Texas border with Mexico, where he will continue to seek answers to questions arising from the influx of unaccompanied minors crossing the southern border.