Two thousand miles from the border, Syracuse finds itself in immigration debate


Patricia Donovan, right, was among those voicing their concerns Thursday at a town-hall meeting in Syracuse, N.Y., about the mayor’s proposal to allow young, undocumented immigrants to be brought to Syracuse temporarily. (Michael Okoniewski/For The Washington Post)

The immigration rallies — the protesters and the buses of undocumented immigrants that upended Southern California in early July — had already been on the news for a week when, 2,000 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner got an e-mail:

“Dear Mayor Miner,” began the letter sent July 9 from a federal official. “We wanted to alert you that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and General Services Administration is conducting an assessment of 2500 Grant Blvd. to determine whether it may be used as a facility for temporarily housing children who have come into the United States without an adult guardian.”

The address belonged to a convent. A former campus of the Sisters of St. Francis, a bundle of brick buildings behind wooden fences. The nuns had decided to relocate to the suburbs, taking with them their sister-run chocolate shop and listing the property on a government real estate site. The final residents moved out in June. All that was left was 226,000 feet of usable space in the center of a neighborhood that had seen better days.

And now a discussion about an immigration crisis taking place so far away had landed tangibly and specifically in the Northside neighborhood of Syracuse.

Government officials could not tell Miner how many children might be arriving, or when, or even whether they would come at all. The arrangement depended on building inspections and on reaching an agreement with the nuns. What Miner knew was that a surge of 52,000 unaccompanied minors had come into the United States. She knew that on television she saw stories of young girls who had been raped, and young boys fleeing gang violence, and after consulting with city officials she came to believe there was only one response — an e-mail of her own:


Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner, right, talks with Patricia Donovan during the town-hall meeting. Donovan is against the idea of housing undocumented immigrants at former convent in her neighborhood. (Michael Okoniewski/For The Washington Post)

“Dear President Obama,” began Miner’s letter dated July 17. She told the president that her city wanted some of those children. She cited New York’s long tradition of welcoming immigrants. “We stand ready,” she wrote, “to expedite this process and work through any issues so we can accomplish the goal of providing a safe and welcoming site.”

Opposite reactions

On a Thursday evening in late July, the line into Northside’s Pastime Athletic Club bulged out the door.

The mayor knew her letter might cause a reaction, but the size of it surprised her: supportive phone calls, angry phone calls, newscasts, rumors. So she called for this, a town-hall meeting, a chance to talk about it.

The linoleum-floored community space had seats for 100, with a fire-code limit of 150. By the 6 p.m. start time, every vinyl chair was occupied. Along the back wall, people hunched two-deep and shoulder to shoulder — more crunched than they had been since the 2009 town halls on the health-care law. A decision was made: The mayor announced they would meet in shifts, two town halls, and she asked the crowd still waiting outside to return in an hour.

“As a way to start, let me tell you about exactly how we got to where we are and where that is,” she said to the first group. “This year, the Sisters of St. Francis decided to finalize their move out of the convent.”

According to government officials, the refugee children would each have an average stay of 35 days, she said. They would mostly come from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. In other facilities like this across the country, there had never been any public safety incidents.

“That’s a lie!” A man leaning against the back wall jolted upright at the last statement. “It’s a lie!”

More than 57,000 unaccompanied minors have crossed into the United States from Mexico since October 2013. Here are 10 numbers to know about the growing humanitarian crisis. (Tom LeGro and Natalie Jennings/The Washington Post)

His friends muttered agreement. That’s not what they had heard. If these children had managed to get all the way to the U.S. border, what was to stop them from scaling the convent’s fence?

To some residents, the mayor’s public letter was a testament to Syracuse’s long immigrant history: refugees from places such as Bhutan, Sudan and Vietnam had made homes in the city, commemorating their native countries’ cultures with festivals or foreign flag-raising ceremonies. To others, the letter was a jarring invitation for the problems of someone else’s faraway back yard to be deposited on their own front lawns.

One week before the open forum, dueling protests were staged in front of the convent. Neighbors who shopped at the same grocery met on opposite sides of the same street, waving signs that read either “Send Aliens Back” or “Mi Casa Es Tu Casa.”

Now, at the forum, Miner picked up the first notecard from a thick stack of audience comments collected by her staff. She read it aloud: “You said the entire town supports this. You don’t speak for me.”

Another: “If you’re so for this, why don’t you let them move in with you?”

Another: “In view of the fact that we already have a juvenile-delinquent problem in this area that the police have not addressed, exactly what standards and rules will be in effect in regards to these children?”

A woman carrying a pro-immigration sign took a photograph of an opposing heckler with her cellphone. “You have no right to take my picture,” he called. She snapped another one. “You take a picture of my face, I’ll have you arrested.”

Another: “Why is Syracuse going to accept illegal aliens?”

The children were not illegal immigrants, the mayor said. They were refugees who had traveled hundreds of miles searching for a better life.

“But why do they have to come so far, mayor?” cried a woman sitting with her mother-in-law. The two women had brought with them a poster covered in pictures of MS-13 gang members — the types of youths they feared the facility would hold. “Why do they have to come all the way to Syracuse?”

After an hour, the first forum — which had some vocal immigration supporters but a largely negative tone — ended. The next 150 people flooded in. Miner’s voice was hoarse as she started the second round with the same introduction:

“Let me just start with some of the basics. The convent property was put up for sale earlier this year.”

She took up a notecard.

“Why,” the questioner wondered, “are we going to be afraid of children?”

Another: “I came here. I learned English. I’m a retired teacher. I’d like to volunteer to teach the children.”

An older man rose and said he was saddened by the mean-spiritedness that had defined some interactions. Remember what Jesus said, the speaker urged. “What we do for the least of our brethren, we do unto Him.”

Another: “How can we help these children?”

Another: “Within human rights, there are no borders.”

One man stood up to tell Miner that he was proud of her for sending the letter. This was the Syracuse that Miner knew. This was the compassionate place she loved. The naysayers who opposed the center were loud, but she truly believed they were a minority that did not reflect the whole city.

The second session ended.

“Thank you for coming,” she said as participants streamed out of the building, seven blocks away from a convent that might soon house the unknown.

More than an address

Patricia Donovan was one of those naysayers, one of those with opinions the mayor believed to be in the minority. She had brought the MS-13 posters with her daughter-in-law.

Cathy Middlesworth was one of the supporters who had spent the town hall nodding in agreement with the mayor.

Both women had lived in the neighborhood for a long time. Neither had ever thought much about immigrant holding centers. Neither had imagined it would ever affect her.

To whichever government officials had plucked the Sisters of St. Francis campus from a real estate listing, the space was just an address. But to Donovan, 63, it was the place where her grandchildren attended the Gingerbread day care, where friends had attended Maria Regina, the women’s junior college once on the premises. Middlesworth, 49, had known the convent since she was a girl; it was the central landmark she and her neighborhood friends used as a meeting place after school.

Across the country, the immigration debate over these migrant children was a speculative ideological back-and-forth in which words such as “racist” and “anti-American” were used casually. In Northside, immigration had become this one convent. These streets. This struggling neighborhood. Immigration had landed in their world, and Donovan and Middlesworth had arrived at completely different conclusions as to what that meant.

On the morning after the public forum, Donovan sat on the front porch of the house she was born in, the house her grandfather — the son of Irish immigrants — lived in when he opened an ice-cream shop down the road. She used to know everyone on this block, and the next one. As a girl, she sold lemonade to the rich guests at the exclusive Tuppert’s hotel nearby.

But now the hotel was torn down, replaced by apartments filled with people who spoke languages Donovan didn’t understand — who, she felt, glared at her when she tried to pick up trash around the World War II monument across the street. She tried not to make eye contact with them and instructed her grandchildren to do the same. There were three strip clubs within two blocks. There were boarded-up windows, graffiti and poverty among children of all races that broke her heart when she drove past it.

“It’s just — why do they have to open it in Northside?” she asked her neighbor, Billy, when he stopped by for a visit.

“I know it,” Billy said.

“Why can’t they be spread out? Why can’t some of them go to Tipperary Hill, or Skaneateles?”

When she thought of the shelter opening, she pictured those MS-13 gang members from the photos her daughter-in-law showed her on the Internet, and she didn’t believe it when the mayor said that wasn’t who would be coming. She thought of her property values plummeting further. When the issue is right in the neighborhood you love, she thought, it’s so much more complicated than the news ever makes it out to be.

‘Who could say no to that?’

On that same morning, about six blocks away, Middlesworth sat at the picnic table in her side yard, playing with her cat, Trouble. She was feeling unsettled. As she left the forum the night before, an angry man whose face she slightly recognized told her that she better not keep coming out in support of the shelter — he knew where she lived.

To Middlesworth, Northside was the community that had welcomed her as a young mother 30 years ago. A community with neighbors who offered to watch her kids when her shift changed unexpectedly at a local bakery.

Her street had become a place where she could take her dog in the yard and hear three or four different languages, and she liked that.

There was an Indian family next door, and two Asian families, and though nobody could understand each other, they still shoveled each other’s driveways when it snowed. She still made sure to smile and wave at everyone she passed.

When Middlesworth thought of the shelter, she thought of the ways it could rebuild Northside, not the ways it could harm. “They’ll need jobs filled, I’m sure.” Cooks, housekeepers, maintenance workers, school nurses — the types of jobs people in the neighborhood might have the skills to fill. “I mean, the building has just been sitting there, empty.”

She pictured the children in it, frightened and alone, and wondered how she could volunteer to help them. “They’re children. They’re kids. They asked for our help — who could say no to that?”

Syracuse might be 2,000 miles from the border, but in the end, she didn’t think that mattered when they were talking about children. If the funds to care for them were federal, Middlesworth reasoned, her tax dollars would be helping provide that care wherever in the country the shelters ended up being located. Why not her city? Why shouldn’t the immigration discussion land here?

Already around the Northside area, some residents had noticed workmen near the grounds of the convent, driving trucks, looking at things. Were they with the government? Were plans going forward? Were the children coming?

Middlesworth hoped so. She leaned over to pet Trouble, who rubbed against her legs for attention. “I love this neighborhood,” she said.

Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two.
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