In the midst of a swirling national debate about undocumented immigrant children crossing illegally into the United States, a federally funded shelter in Pasco County is housing boys from Central and South America and asking the county to double its capacity to accommodate more.
The children, according to the Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services shelter in Holiday off of U.S. 19, are between the ages of 8 and 18. The program is paid for by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement.
"This is a humanitarian program and we are working with children who have no criminal record and were smuggled or trafficked into the country," the shelter said in a statement. "We will be fully compliant with the law … and be good neighbors while we implement this federal program."
Gulf Coast said the goal is to find viable parents or close relatives of the kids and unite them. Some of the kids were trafficked into the country for sexual slavery, Gulf Coast said.
A shelter spokeswoman declined to give the number of children at the shelter, but said it is licensed for 16 beds. In an application made Wednesday to the Pasco County Planning Commission for the size increase, representatives from the shelter gave a few details on its plans.
The program will be staffed around the clock every day, with a minimum of one staff person for every six children. The children are expected to live at the shelter for an average of 30 to 45 days.
The planning commission put off a decision until Aug. 6. According to zoning administrator Carol Clarke, there are some previous contractual relationships with the county that need to be explored first.
This issue has been exploding nationally as undocumented children from Central and South America stream into the country, many through Texas.
Cases of Mexican children are heard by U.S. Border Patrol officials and not judges, and decisions are made quickly about what to do. However, the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 requires the government to move children from countries that don't border the United States into the Department of Health and Human services within 72 hours.
Rising amounts of gang violence, like in Honduras, or crippling poverty in the region drives a rapid rise in young immigrants, especially in the last three years. Customs and Border Patrol figures show 57,000 unaccompanied minors apprehended since October. President Barack Obama has asked Congress to make $3.7 billion available to deal with the crisis.
At the shelter Friday, a young-looking man carried a trash bag outside to a bin across the parking lot. A reporter was asked to leave after inquiring. The shelter did not say how long the children had been there.
On the corner of the street, two neighborhood residents stood near a large sign advertising the meeting with the commission. One said he heard U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson was on his way to address the issue. A call to the Democratic senator's office said he was not but that he was aware of it.
A retired woman named Ann Wilkinson lives in the area and heard about the kids. She wanted to see the shelter for herself. She had concerns about what might happen to the neighborhood if there was an influx.
"I'm upset about all of the illegals," she said. "And the money we spend on them."
The area, she said, was already not a good one. She was worried about crime.
The shelter spokeswoman said they understand the interests and sentiment of the neighbors.
"We arranged a meeting with the local civic association board to ensure they could hear, firsthand, what this program involves and respond to the concerns," the statement said. "The board assured us they will try and work with us."