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Mon August 11, 2014
Regional Coverage

Some answers about Syracuse housing Central American children

At a community meeting a few weeks ago, questions and comments about Syracuse being used as a shelter site for children flooding into the country from Central America were heaved at Mayor Stephanie Miner for two hours; some written neatly on note cards, others shouted from a crowded room.

Several concerns arose among North Side residents when word got out last month the city may temporarily house children fleeing violence and seeking refuge in America. 

The mayor didn't have a ton of specific answers that night. In fact, not a lot of people do, but here's what we know:

Who are these children and why are they coming?

Miner says she considers these children to be refugees, fleeing hardship thousands of miles away, and welcomes them. Cities in countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have been wrecked by gang violence and drug warfare.

"If you ask my opinion, do I think they're in need of international protection? I think they are in need of international protection," said Amy Lutz, a sociologist and immigration expert at Syracuse University.

Nearly 60,000 kids have crossed the border so far this year. Most are adolescent boys.

They're taking a big leap of faith in the making the thousands of miles journey to America's southern border, Lutz said.

"They're fearing for their lives in their home countries so I've heard some children say, 'if I don't leave, I know I'll be killed, but if I take this journey, I don't know what will happen,'" she said.

While many may deserve to be granted asylum, the United Nations says in a report, that takes time. And in the meantime, it's putting a burden on immigration resources in the U.S. 

What's happening to the kids once they're in America and why would they come to Syracuse?

When children cross the border without parents, says Betsy Plum with the New York Immigration Coalition, immigration officials try to pair them with family or friends legally in the U.S.

"Sometimes that process takes a while," she said. "It usually takes around two months, even in sort of the fastest scenario where there might be a parent ready and willing."

Officials say the teens cycle through the shelters in about 35 to 40 days on average. It’s once they're paired with a sponsor, the legal proceeding for asylum would begin.

The government has used military bases near the border to house kids until they can be paired, but those are full too, which is why officials are looking north.

Representatives from the Department of Health and Human Services found the former Sisters of St. Francis convent, which is recently empty and up for rent, while searching real estate websites. So they scheduled tour.

"And when they came on site, bringing them through the buildings, they indicated that they were looking for property that they could house some of the children coming in from Central America on a temporary basis," said Rochelle Cassella, communications director for the sisters.

The former Sisters of St. Francis convent on Syracuse's North Side.
Credit Ryan Delaney / WRVO

The convent, located on Grant Boulevard on Syracuse's North Side, is the only site officials looked at in New York that passed its initial inspection. 

Just how many kids would live at the convent?

The government has been mum on that one. Cassella says at one point, about 200 nuns lived at the convent. So that's a rough estimate.

"I think the general feeling was that we have a lot of what they were looking for," Cassella said. "There's a lot of space here."

The facility also includes classrooms, a gym and industrial kitchens.

Of course, government officials could reconfigure dorm rooms, or use some of the common rooms to house children, too, which would boost capacity.

And how long would the convent be used to house children?

It's hard to say. Federal officials haven’t given the city or convent any indication on that. A lot depends on if the flow of children subsides.

Cassella says she wouldn't want to pinpoint a timeline, but if the government were to come in, it would probably be for more than a week or two, she speculates.

"It could be six months, it could be a year, could be two years," she said. "But do I want to say definitely to the community that that's how long the kids are going to be here? I just don't have any idea."

She bases those numbers off what she's heard from other sites that have been reviewed.

What kind of burden will it put on the city?

In an interview with WRVO’s Campbell Conversations, Mayor Miner reiterated that the federal government will pay for the housing and care of the kids. 

A woman holds a sign at a community meeting about housing migrant children.
Credit Ryan Delaney / WRVO

"I'm confident in both the conversations I've had orally and in written conversations that the federal government picks up the costs associated with this facility," Miner told host Grant Reeher.

"Now look, are they going to use our water? Of course. If a child breaks his arm on the facility are they going to go to our hospital? Of course."

So far, federal officials have reported no major cases of illness or violence at the shelter sites. The kids are given an initial medical and mental health check when they cross the border and are taken into custody.

But neighbors of the convent worry children will get out and increase crime on the North Side.

"While we certainly want the children to be secure and certainly want the neighborhood to be secure, we don't want a prison in the middle of the neighborhood," Cassella said.

When will they come?

That's another one that's hard to answer.

Rep. Dan Maffei (D-Syracuse) says he's been reaching out to federal officials, but with not much luck.

They have not been able to give me an update, mainly because they simply don't have any information to report," he said in an interview.

But Congress did not vote on funding the president requested this summer that would likely pay for this site before it went on recess until after Labor Day. That means we probably won't hear anything for at least a few weeks.

Until then, the Sisters of St. Francis convent remains on the market. If someone else comes along and rents or buys the property, Cassella points out, the whole plan could be scrapped.

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