A town that blocked child immigrants reflects, with and without regrets

July 25, 2014

Town residents listen during a presentation by federal officials involved in the placement of immigrant children at St Paul’s College in Lawrenceville, Va., on June 19. The program is on hold pending comments from local residents (Steve Helber/AP)

 

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.

Residents welcome you into book-lined parlors and set out glasses of water on paper napkins. They sit on front porches and say, sure, come on up, shouting, “cut that out!,” to the furious little boys tussling in the front yard. They stand on the hot sidewalk in church clothes after a late lunch at the only restaurant left downtown and they try to explain.

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.

“It made me think of the Civil Rights Movement and the integration of the schools,” says Kent Hopson, a 46-year-old ambulance driver who lives across the road from the college speaking of the images he saw on the news that night. “I’ve watched documentaries. I’ve read books about it. I thought, ‘Oh, man. I’ve seen that look.’”

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.

In the days since, similar anger has raged throughout the country. The debate over what to do with the tens of thousands of refugee children who have crossed through Mexico into the U.S. touches down in Murrieta, Calif., and in Prince William County, Va. The governor of Texas announces his intent to send National Guard troops to the border and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R) says the country is unable to absorb such mass migration. In Congress, representatives of the people argue over whether to undo a President George W. Bush-era protocol that gives the children a chance to make their case before a judge.

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 American 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. They are called juveniles, illegals, possible carriers of infectious diseases and random mayhem, young men of unverifiable age and unknown intent who might be better suited for the empty state prison down the road.

They are denied innocence in order to be remade as symbols.

“They are just beyond ever being healed to their original state,” a woman warns the crowd in a snippet of video from the meeting, which was captured by filmmaker Eric Byler for the Story of America documentary project.  “They are. You need to be careful of your children and your property and your life and your everything. They’re dangerous.”

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.

Lawrenceville is a rural community, lovely in the embrace of lush tobacco fields. It is, as many rural communities are, as many poor communities are, full of people who both depend upon government and are deeply suspicious of it. It is a community where one in three residents lives in poverty, where unemployment is consistently running at higher rates than the state and country.

Downtown is empty and the church pews are full and Lawrenceville is dying one shuttered storefront at a time. It fades with every young person who leaves seeking something else, something more. It withers for the lack of jobs, for decent pay, for the want of a stronger tax base, from the inability to transition from its glory days as an agricultural marketplace.

“Dying on its feet,” says Constance Kelly-Rice, the former chief clerk of the circuit court and a St. Paul’s College alumna.

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 the days that follow, there are recriminations.

“Do y’all really want to be known as child-haters?” someone asks City Councilwoman Joyce Bland. She is a mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and she sits on her sun porch, children everywhere, the recollection alone of that question cutting her to the quick.

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. It could have helped the college that produced much of what remains of this town’s black middle class. Fellow supporters, silent at the meeting, call her to thank her.

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, with their ever-evolving, but still vague answers to legitimate questions, did that all on their own, he says. Had federal officials done everything right, the outcome might have been the same, townspeople tend to agree, but the heat never would have been as hot had the town not felt blindsided.

“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 paneling and smell of mildew and laments the loss of what he believed was “a win-win” for everyone. He writes a check for $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 $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.

Tina Griego is a reporter for Storyline. Previously, Tina was a city columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post for a combined 12 years.
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