Muted controversy follows unaccompanied minors to Pennsylvania

 This image from NBC10 video shows Bethany Children's home in Womelsdorf, Pa., one of four shelters where unaccompanied Central American children are being housed. (NBC10 video)

This image from NBC10 video shows Bethany Children's home in Womelsdorf, Pa., one of four shelters where unaccompanied Central American children are being housed. (NBC10 video)

While they’re no longer the top story on CNN, the federal government is still processing large numbers of Central American children who recently arrived at the U.S. border. 

After running out of space to house them, the federal government has been placing small numbers of children in facilities across the country — including in four Pennsylvania shelters.

Amelia Frank-Vitale recently returned to the U.S. after four years doing research on Central American migrants as they make their way north through Mexico.

She saw first-hand the growing number of children and families from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador and described a common scenario she heard from migration about what had driven them to leave home.

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“At 12 or 13, the Mara, the gang starts recruiting and there are not a lot of options. If you don’t join, you’re a target,” she said. “It’s not like you can keep your head down and go to school and everything’s fine. In a lot of these neighborhoods schools are feeding grounds, are recruiting grounds for [the gangs].”

Now, Frank-Vitale has found two shelters that have accepted Central American children within an hour’s drive of her parents home in Reading, Kids Peace in Fountain Hill (near Bethlehem) and the Bethany Children’s home in Womelsdorf. 

Under federal law, the children who make it to the U.S. remain in the country while their asylum claims are evaluated. The kids only stay here a few weeks until the shelter finds a friend or family member they can stay with during their court proceedings.

But even so, Carol Anne Donohoe explains the government has scrambled to find enough of this temporary housing for this year’s new arrivals. 

Donohoe, an immigration and family lawyer in Reading, has handled unaccompanied minors’ cases for years.  She said that, until recently, the system had been more centralized, “basically where I would get kids would be from New York.”

“Now that these facilities are taking kids from all over the country then different places that never saw this before are seeing it and reacting to it as if it’s something new,” she said.

In July, protesters picketed outside the Bethany Children’s Home, which made 32 beds available to the federal government this summer, part of 161 volunteered statewide.

An institution that dates back to the Civil War, Bethany sits on the side of a hill in Womelsdorf, sandwiched between woods and cornfields. 

In a video uploaded to YouTube of the protest, a man named Steve Piotrowski, says the demonstrators plan to block a bus of children they expect to arrive. 

A woman with a sign that reads, “They are not our responsibility” tells him she’s here to stand with other patriots, “to protest that illegal aliens are being brought into this community. They’re going to be housed at this Bethany home here and be paid for by our tax dollars.”

The Office of Refugee Resettlement, which has the temporary charge of these children, reimburses Bethany for their care. Berks County Commissioner Kevin Barnhardt said that from his conversations with shelter staff, he believes the children are only passing through the area. 

“Most of the kids that have been reacquainted with family members have gone primarily down to Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.”

He thinks that for most of his constituents, the children have been “a blip on the radar.”

Two of them, Cameron Schmidt and Sean Kissinger, largely agree. Locals, both in their 20s, they seem more surprised by the uproar than by the presence of the children. 

“When I was at the diner the other day over at Heidelberg diner there were people […] in the parking lot,” Schmidt said, “getting all their signs together which was interesting and caused a little bit of a stir in the diner.”

“There isn’t really much hustle and bustle over issues like that around here,” Kissinger added. 

Meanwhile, the situation at the border has also become calmer. US Border Patrol apprehended 3,141 children in August down from more that 10,000 in both May and June.

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