NEW PORT RICHEY — Rochelle Tatrai-Ray has heard the complaints about the young immigrants being housed in her Pasco County shelter.
That they are illegal immigrants with no business being in the United States. That they harbor communicable diseases. That they need to be sent back to their homes in Central and South America, and quickly.
Those things are just not true, said Tatrai-Ray, CEO of Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services, which runs a 16-bed shelter here housing a handful of the refugees sparking national controversy.
"These are children and they're scared," she told the Tampa Bay Times in her first public comments about the situation. "If people had better perception and knowledge of the situation, they'd feel better, I think.
"It's the lack of knowing that breeds fear."
Tatrai-Ray said all of the immigrants housed in her shelter are between the ages of eight and 18. Many, she said, are here because family members have been killed and their parents are afraid their children will be next.
They are given a complete medical assessment and screened for communicable diseases at the border, and they are rescreened by a doctor in Pasco, she said.
The youngsters are at the shelter for an average of 17 days, she said. They then will go on to identified guardians already in the States. The shelter got $963,000 from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement for April through September, Tatrai-Ray said, and will get $1.8 million for fiscal year 2015. The Pasco County Commission will hear a request on August 19 to double the size of the shelter to 32 beds on August 19.
All of the children who come in, she explained, are carefully vetted by the Department of Homeland Security.
The shelter has the right to turn children away who have criminal backgrounds, she said, and has done so. Also, there's an agreement with the Pasco County School District to bring in an educational specialist to work with the kids.
"They wouldn't come to us if they didn't get screened at the border," she said. "I know people think we're sending them everywhere, but they have to have identified guardians before they come to us. It's a very thorough process."
The Pasco shelter is one of many across the country helping to respond to what President Barack Obama has called a humanitarian crisis, with most of the children entering the country through Texas.
Customs and Border Patrol figures show 57,000 unaccompanied minors apprehended since October. Obama has asked Congress to make $3.7 billion in emergency funding available to deal with the influx.
On Monday, Texas Gov. Rick Perry said he wanted to deploy as many as 1,000 National Guard troops to the border.
On Tuesday, Gov. Rick Scott of Florida participated in a conference call with White House officials about the issue.
According to a Scott spokesperson, the governor was on for the overview portion of the call, but he didn't participate in a question and answer session, and nothing specific about Florida was discussed. Any questions about how many facilities were operating in Florida were deferred to the federal government.
The White House said the number of unaccompanied children dropped by half from June to July, and it wanted to work with governors to provide the appropriate care for the kids at the border.
Tatrai-Ray said the stories she has heard from the children are horrific: siblings killed, and parents with no choice but to send them away with only the hope of a better life.
"I think it's important that people know we're seeing more and more kids fleeing," she said. "And really the fleeing is related to persecution and death. Kids are coming here because it's either that or become a part of the violence. Any parent would do the same to save their kid."
Tatrai-Ray said she feels an obligation to the community to calm some of the fears they may have, and to drive home a simple message: These are children and they need our help.
"I personally went and spent some time with the kids and they are so sweet — the sweetest, kindest kids," she said. "They're very timid and quiet and fearful, and that's why I get so emotional about it. When you see them, you feel differently. They're children. They're innocent children."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Jon Silman at [email protected] or 727- 869-6229.