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Emsworth's Holy Family Institute wants to take in children crossing border

| Tuesday, July 15, 2014, 5:53 p.m.
Evan Sanders | Tribune-Review
Holy Family Institute, an Emsworth nonprofit that provides children and family services, is preparing to become a temporary shelter for children who have entered the United States illegally without any parents or guardians. Since October, nearly 60,000 unaccompanied Central American children have illegally crossed the Texas border.

Holy Family Institute in Emsworth wants to provide temporary shelter to children who have entered the United States illegally without parents or guardians, generating concerns among some residents.

A deluge of unaccompanied children — nearly 60,000 have arrived in Texas since October — has overwhelmed the federal Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees 100 permanent shelters under the Unaccompanied Alien Children program.

Military facilities are being used to help house the youths as efforts to place the overflow in temporary shelters elsewhere across the country have generated some protests and complaints in places such as Arizona, California, Maryland and eastern Pennsylvania.

“We believe this is the right thing to do for our ministry and for children who are in need,” said Sister Linda Yankoski, Holy Family CEO.

Yankoski said Holy Family initially plans to take in as many as 20 children (12 boys, 8 girls) up to age 12 who have passed through government-mandated health examinations and necessary immunizations. It could expand the program by October to accept as many as 36 children. Their stays at the state-licensed facility on Route 65 would be limited to about a month, she said.

Holy Family, which accepted orphans from Haiti after the earthquake there, expects to receive federal funding to cover the cost of temporarily housing the children, Yankoski said. President Obama has requested $3.7 billion in emergency funding to deal with the influx.

Emsworth Mayor Dee Quinn said she was “stunned” to learn of Holy Family's plans.

“I feel like we should have been notified, and we could've had a public meeting on it,” she said. “I think it's very important for everyone to know what's going on.”

Yankoski said she would be willing to meet with Emsworth officials about the plans.

George Jones, 85, who has lived next to Emsworth's Holy Family campus for more than 50 years, said he has no concerns about the plan.

“It doesn't bother me at all. There have been kids over there for a long, long time, and I haven't had any problems,” Jones said.

Robert Keller, who owns the Eclectic Art and Objects Gallery across the street from Holy Family's sprawling campus, said he is concerned about the immigrants' potential impact on the community.

“This has been kept totally under wraps by (Holy Family). I don't know why they didn't try to talk to the neighbors. When you're making a decision like this for Holy Family, you're making a decision for the whole community,” Keller said.

Similar concerns recently helped scuttle the Committee on Refugees and Immigrants' plans for a similar shelter in Hazleton in Luzerne County. The city drew national attention in 2006 when an influx of immigrants prompted Hazleton officials to pass an ordinance that sought to fine landlords who rented to people living in the country illegally, deny business permits to companies that gave them jobs and require prospective tenants to register with city hall and pay for a rental permit. The laws were never enforced amid court challenges.

“This problem has not ended because one group has taken one town or state off its list,” U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Hazleton, said of the nixed shelter plans in his city. “My question is, why is this only America's problem? What about the responsibilities of the countries from which these minors came?”

More than 90 percent of the immigrants crossing the Texas border since October are from the Central American nations of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Federal authorities expect as many as 90,000 unaccompanied children to arrive this fiscal year, which ends in September. Between 2003 and 2011, an average of fewer than 7,000 unaccompanied children crossed the border annually, according to Health and Human Services data.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, said he believes the Obama administration's funding request “is a step in the right direction because it addresses the crisis on those varied fronts, such as the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department taking steps to stop the flow of children who are leaving their countries.”

Holy Family opened as an orphanage in 1900. Today it offers a range of children's and family services, including boarding students from China, deaf children from Pressley Ridge school and children who have been abused or neglected.

Before Holy Family can take in any immigrant children, it needs to hire a team of specialists and counselors who can speak Spanish. A posting on the website miracleworkers.com says the nonprofit is looking to hire a clinician, case manager, shift supervisor, part-time medical coordinator and youth counselors.

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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