HARRISONBURG — Evidence of the wave of undocumented youth crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in southern Texas nearly came to Rockingham County.
Earlier this year, the board of directors for the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center in Verona turned down a request from the federal government to house children crossing the border in Rockingham, County Administrator Joe Paxton said Friday.
On Thursday, the Verona center’s executive director, Timothy Smith, told the Staunton News Leader that seven children from Central America, all younger than 18, have been placed in the juvenile center within the last month.
Paxton is a member of the board for the facility, which serves the cities of Harrisonburg, Staunton, Waynesboro and Lexington, and Rockingham, Augusta and Rockbridge counties. Since the panel did not accept the request from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — Rockbridge County was also looked at — he said he did not want to elaborate, including on a potential location.
The number of immigrant children now placed in Verona may be higher than normal, but the fact the children are arriving is not necessarily alarming, officials say. The center signed a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement five years ago to house undocumented children, subject to space availability, Paxton said.
They’re typically held for less than 30 days and then relocated, which could mean deportation or connecting with family members in the U.S., he said.
More than 57,000 undocumented children have arrived in the U.S. since the fall — mostly unaccompanied youth from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — which has left the Obama administration scrambling to find housing for them, The Associated Press has reported. Some communities have resisted efforts to bring children to their area, such as in Lawrenceville, where plans to use the shuttered St. Paul’s College were canceled because of public outcry.
The recent influx of children brings attention to the seven now in Verona, Paxton said, though he notes that the facility has housed migrant youth for years.
“As the numbers have increased, there are probably a significant number of facilities around the country that are being used now that hadn’t been used before,” he said.
Smith and his deputy director, Timothy Showalter, could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon. Augusta County Administrator Pat Coffield, chairman of the regional board for the detention center, also was out of the office.
Coffield told the Staunton newspaper that, as of Thursday, 24 out of 30 beds used for children in the country illegally were occupied at the juvenile center. The Verona facility has 58 beds.
Paxton said he hasn’t heard of health or operational issues in the years that the Verona facility has accepted undocumented children. Smith told the News Leader that children detained by ICE are prescreened before arriving and his medical staff also gives them a second screening.
Sixth District Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Roanoke, is trying to stop the flow of undocumented migrant children and has introduced the Asylum Reform and Border Protection Act, which seeks to speed up the removal of the unaccompanied minors.
Contact Preston Knight at 574-6272 or firstname.lastname@example.org