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In blue Northern Va., top officials push back against proposed shelter for migrant youths

The Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center in Staunton, Va., where unaccompanied minors are housed. (Zachary Wajsgras/AP)

Top Democrats in increasingly blue Northern Virginia are telling the Trump administration they’re against plans to open a shelter for unaccompanied minors in the region and saying their jurisdictions should be compensated for any potential impact on local schools or hospitals.

In a part of the state that is home to a large Latino immigrant community, elected officials also are saying they disapprove of the way the federal government has handled a historic wave of migration at the southern border, where children have been separated from their families and placed in squalid conditions inside crowded holding facilities.

“I am extremely concerned about your administration’s policy of separating children from their families when they cross the border into the U.S.,” Sharon Bulova (D), chair of Fairfax County’s Board of Supervisors, said in a letter sent Monday to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees care for unaccompanied minors. “Fairfax County wants no part in this heartless practice.”

Last week, Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson (D) sent the agency a similar letter, while Phyllis J. Randall (D), chair of Loudoun County’s Board of Supervisors, said in a WAMU radio interview that such a facility “is not good for children.”

HHS officials did not immediately respond Monday to a request for comment.

How much control local jurisdictions would have in the federal government’s effort to lease enough space to house up to 440 unaccompanied minors would depend on where the land is located and how it is zoned, local officials concede.

HHS wants to build a “Virginia Residential Child Care Facility” that would have a staff of 147 people and be equipped with classrooms, sleeping areas and two acres of outdoor space for recreation, according to a formal solicitation posted by the General Services Administration.

The agency previously said the facility would be among three new permanent shelters constructed in communities with large numbers of immigrants from Central America, where most of the minors who have entered the country in recent years have come from. The other proposed facilities would be in Los Angeles and central Florida.

The effort is meant to house youths close to where they may have relatives already living and to ease crowded conditions inside U.S. Border Patrol processing centers, where visitors have described seeing unbathed children wearing clothes caked with snot and toddlers without diapers.

Nationwide, HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement funds about 170 shelters in 23 states, with about 8,700 unaccompanied minors in those facilities.

In Virginia, about 130 unaccompanied minors are being held at privately run shelters, mostly the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center in Staunton and Youth for Tomorrow in Prince William County, immigrant advocates say.

Concerns about housing hundreds more unaccompanied minors in the region cross party lines. Both Bulova and Corey A. Stewart, the Republican chair of Prince William’s Board of Supervisors, said they want to know whether the Trump administration will reimburse their jurisdictions for any local tax dollars used to care for the children.

“Your agency has a duty to provide for these children and should bear any costs for doing so rather than imposing them on local and state taxpayers,” Bulova said in her letter.

Stewart, an ardent supporter of President Trump, said the administration has so far offered only vague details about its plans. He said in an interview that he would like to know, among other things, whether HHS would deal with any potential problems with discipline or communicable diseases inside the facility.

“Presumably, our board would have to approve the location,” Stewart said, citing the potential need to rezone land to accommodate a large shelter. “The federal government can’t just build wherever it wants in Prince William County.”

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