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Refugee shelter proposal tears Alma community apart as vote on rezoning nears

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Brett Dahlberg
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WCMU News
Debate over a shelter for young asylum-seekers has dominated local government meetings in Alma this summer. The city is scheduled to vote on the issue tomorrow.

The mid-Michigan city of Alma, 1,500 miles from the southern border, is set to vote Tuesday on what has become an unlikely test of federal immigration policy.

Alma’s city commission will decide whether to rezone land occupied by a vacant nursing home to allow its conversion into a shelter for young refugees from Central America. Opposition to the shelter is vocal and fierce, and a no vote could ricochet through the country’s immigration system.

As the number of unaccompanied children crossing into the U.S. swells, the federal government has begun looking ever further from the southern border for places to house them.

The issue has torn apart the Alma community as it’s dominated city meetings this summer.

"Immigration is a very emotional issue. It cuts to the gut of who we are."
Muzaffar Chishti, senior fellow, Immigration Policy Institute

Supporters of the shelter in the city of 9,000 have slung accusations of racism and xenophobia at opponents. Opponents say opening the city to refugees risks endangering Alma residents and turning the city into a conduit for crimes like drug smuggling and human trafficking.

The federal government’s ability to follow its own laws governing the treatment of young asylum-seekers hinges on communities like Alma agreeing to host shelters.

When a child crosses the southern U.S. border without family and is picked up by customs and border patrol agents, they’re in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security. That agency has 72 hours to transfer them to the health and human services department, which works to unite the child with family or another sponsor in this country.

HHS works with non-profit groups to run a network of shelters near the border that house the child while they wait for a more permanent placement -- but those shelters are filling up.

The agency’s capacity could be compressed still further by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to revoke licenses for shelters in his state that house unaccompanied migrant children.

Northern states like North Dakota and Pennsylvania have accepted temporary migrant shelters. A shelter in Albion, in south-central Michigan, welcomed more than 200 unaccompanied children earlier this year.

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Brett Dahlberg
Robi Rodriguez speaks at an Alma planning commission meeting, urging the commission to recommend against rezoning for a youth refugee shelter.

But approval is far from certain in Alma, where Yvette Franco-Clark leads one of the groups against the shelter.

The group, called We the County, held a series of organizing meetings over the last few months at which people voiced fears of Latin American gangs infiltrating the asylum process to establish drug-running routes and getting special treatment off the largess of the American government.

Franco-Clark organized a succession of people to speak at city commission meetings in Alma “to stand against Bethany Christian Services.”

Bethany is the Grand Rapids-based nonprofit organization that would run the shelter, if rezoning is approved.

The charity “is doing nothing more than saying they’re doing Jesus’s work while making money off of these kids,” Franco-Clark said at one of the group’s meetings.

“They’re abusing Christianity to make a buck, plain and simple,” Franco-Clark said.

The U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement said it runs rigorous checks on everyone who crosses the border seeking asylum.

Bethany Christian Services Executive Director Krista Stevens said as a charitable organization, Bethany won’t profit from a shelter in Alma.

The children who would be housed there “are fleeing legitimate trauma,” Stevens said.

Violence, state corruption, human trafficking, and extreme poverty are pushing them out of their homes in Central America. “They’re looking for somewhere safe,” she said.

‘I never thought Alma would feel that way’

The leader of another organization opposed to the shelter, Citizens Against, said she resents Bethany Christian Services for bringing new problems to Alma.

“It’s like they’re trying to bring the border crisis here,” said Robi Rodriguez.

“I definitely, definitely didn’t think that here, in Gratiot county, this was going to happen,” she said. “I was like, ‘No way! This just is not even possible. This is a joke, right?’”

Proponents of the shelter can’t believe what’s happening, either.

Maria Vetere moved to Michigan from Mexico as a child, decades ago.

After the truck that her family expected to take them back to Mexico at the end of a harvest season never showed up, she said, they had to hide in temporary housing designed to shelter migrant workers only through the summer.

“We experienced some of the same things these kids are trying to escape,” Vetere said.

“We didn’t have a place to stay. … It was getting very cold, I got a whooping cough, and my mom almost lost me too. We didn’t know anybody. We didn’t know English,” she said.

Partway through the winter, a local minister heard the family was hiding on a farm and took them in, said Vetere. She learned English, went to Central Michigan University, and now, more than 50 years later, teaches English to the children of migrant farmworkers when they stay near Alma.

For the first time since that first Michigan winter, Vetere said, she feels like she’s not welcome in Alma.

It hurts, she said, to hear her neighbors vilify children like her, describing young people seeking asylum as liars and criminals.

“I never thought Alma would feel that way,” Vetere said. “If I just arrived today, I wouldn’t be welcome here.”

Now, she’s thinking about moving. “I want to get out of here,” she said. “Get away from all that stuff, live with a more Mexican community -- or at least a more tolerant community.”

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Brett Dahlberg
Pat Touzeau, left, and Maria Vetere, prepare to move Touzeau out of her duplex at the Michigan Masonic Home. Touzeau says her disagreements with her conservative neighbors have become too deep to continue living there.

Vetere’s friend Pat Touzeau isn’t just thinking about moving. She’s doing it.

Touzeau lived for years in a duplex on the property of the Michigan Masonic Home.

She’s known since she got here that she’s a bit of an outsider. “I am a liberal in a very conservative community,” Touzeau said.

But the fight over the refugee shelter has made her realize the depth of her disagreement with her neighbors. She’s moving to St. Louis, Mich., about three miles away.

“It’s still conservative, but at least they’re not trying to shoo away those poor kids,” Touzeau said.

Touzeau, Vetere, Rodriguez and Franco-Clark all said convincing the other side is a futile effort.

“They keep trying to change my mind, and it isn’t going to happen, any more than I’m going to change theirs,” Touzeau said.

That’s left faith leaders in Alma struggling to approach the issue with their deeply divided congregations.

Katrina Pekich-Bundy has been the pastor at Alma’s First Presbyterian Church for all of a month.

“It was within my first week that I was like, ‘Wow, this really is tearing this community apart,’” she said.

Pekich-Bundy said she has not directly addressed the city’s upcoming vote on the shelter, but she has preached about the general topic.

“I have brought up how Jesus welcomed those who most of society turned away,” she said. “When you saw someone hungry, you fed them. When you saw someone naked, you clothed them,” she said, describing the scripture she cited.

It was about as close as she could get to preaching about the rezoning vote without actually naming it, she said.

To Pekich-Bundy, there’s a clear direction for the church: welcoming young refugees. But she’s not sure if Alma is ready for it.

“Having seen some of the yelling and the anger and the hate, it makes me question if this would be welcoming for someone who is an outsider – for somebody who is a person of color,” she said.

“I would not want to put somebody at risk.”

A national issue

The surge of young migrants crossing the southern border is forcing the federal government to look for shelters in places it normally wouldn’t -- where opposition to the refugees can be strong, said Muzaffar Chishti, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute.

“It does become much more potent in places which don’t have a lot of history of immigration. Numbers do matter,” he said.

In Alma, more than 98% of the population was born in the U.S., census figures show.

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Brett Dahlberg
The former Warwick Living Center nursing home in Alma is now vacant and the subject of a rezoning proposal to allow its conversion to a shelter for young refugees.

Chishti said a proposal to house 40 migrant children in New York, Miami or Los Angeles might not raise concerns in the same way it does in a small city like Alma.

“This is a very thick soup of anxiety that we are dealing with,” he said. “There are economic fears about job security and displacement, and there are the ever-present fears of outsiders.”

“Immigration is a very emotional issue. It cuts to the gut of who we are and who our community is,” said Chishti.

But big-city shelters are running out of room, Chishti said, and the federal government has been forced to adapt in the middle of a surge in unaccompanied children crossing the border.

“It does not seem like it was ready,” he said. “The government hasn’t accepted this as a sustained phenomenon. That’s why it moves from one crisis to the next.”

In the long term, said Chishti, the U.S. needs a comprehensive strategy for getting young asylum-seekers into shelters.

“Prepare facilities in several parts of the country that can handle surges. Put them in places where there is not anxiety about immigration,” he said. “Run them like FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] so they can build their staff quickly when it’s needed.”

Without that preparation, Chishti said, if current immigration trends continue, and places like Alma don’t allow shelters for unaccompanied children, the federal government will struggle to follow its own laws and guidelines on how to care for migrant kids.

Alma’s planning commission has already recommended against the rezone. City Attorney Tony Costanzo said although there is no rule requiring the full commission to follow the planning vote, he can’t remember the city commission ever voting to overturn a decision by the planning commission.

The state civil rights commission has also stepped in, warning the city that denying a rezoning request based on race or national origin is illegal.

Alma's mayor, Greg Mapes, had recused himself from voting on the proposal because of his affiliation with the organization that owns the vacant nursing home. He then asked the city planning commission to un-recuse him, which would allow him to vote at tomorrow’s meeting.

Then, Mapes changed course again, telling the local paper The Morning Sun that he will not be voting. “In the interest of avoiding the appearance of conflict (of interest) I no longer plan to vote on this issue Tuesday,” he said.

Mapes wrote an editorial in the paper last week urging the commission to approve the rezoning and allow the shelter.

Some Alma officials said no matter what decision the city makes, they’re expecting a lawsuit.

The city commission is scheduled to vote during Tuesday’s 6 p.m. meeting at Alma High School.