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Pasco planning commission approves expansion of shelter for immigrant kids

NEW PORT RICHEY — Opponents voiced concern about the threat of crime, the burden on government and the risk from disease, even the deadly Ebola virus. Supporters pleaded for the cause of lost children.

The national debate over immigration arrived in the Pasco County community of Holiday on Wednesday. The spark: a proposal by Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services to expand its temporary housing for immigrant boys to help respond to the flood of children crossing the border from South and Central America.

Pasco County planning commissioners ultimately advanced the proposal by a 6-3 vote and it now heads to the County Commission for a final decision later this month. But their approval, before an audience of about 100 people, came after heated public debate that echoed scenes playing out across the country.

"These people are criminals," said Bill Akens, a member of the Pasco County Republican Executive Committee.

"They're children!" shouted a supporter.

Gulf Coast wants to expand its shelter in Holiday for temporarily housing boys ages 8 to 18 fleeing from violence and poverty from countries such as Honduras and Guatemala, from 16 beds to 32. Many of the children have been sent by their parents.

Children housed at the shelter stay for about two weeks before getting places with relatives around the country.

The appointed Pasco County Planning Commission is in charge of making a recommendation on the expansion to elected county commissioners. The shelter was originally approved in 2007 for disabled elderly people but its use has since changed. Wednesday's vote was about the expansion in the number of people for whom Gulf Coast serves.

During the hearing, speakers kept circling back to the intractable issue of federal immigration policy.

"That's a November vote," commission Chairman Charles Grey told the crowd. "This board doesn't have that authority."

A few opponents cited concerns about the Ebola virus that has spread through West African countries and has now turned up in the United States, as well as the enterovirus respiratory illness that recently appeared for the first time in Florida. One woman mentioned Eric Duncan, who died Wednesday in Texas after contracting Ebola in Liberia.

Opponent Hugh Townsend said he was concerned about tuberculosis, chicken pox and measles. And more general opposition to allowing illegal immigrants entry into the country also was voiced.

Margarita Romo, an east Pasco activist and pastor, said the shelter met all the zoning criteria and should be approved.

"Do what is right," she urged commissioners.

U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis did not attend the meeting, but an aide submitted a letter in which the congressman accused federal officials of "grossly misusing" the Office of Refugee Resettlement to send unaccompanied minors to "local entities to be housed."

Gulf Coast has a federal contract to serve as a shelter for immigrant children who travel alone across the border to escape violence in their home countries. The shelter recently won a grant from the Office of Refugee Resettlement to expand.

The planning commission vote was initially scheduled for August, but was postponed. Commissioners who voted no Wednesday said they based their decision on concerns about the shelter's potential effect on property values. Even some planning commissioners who voted yes said they might not want it in their own neighborhoods.

Chairman Grey, who voted no, said he was concerned about disease and that the federal government's assertions that the kids had been screened might not prove trustworthy.

"Every child has the right to be taken care of until we do something with them, but the point is do we have the right to put it in that neighborhood?" he said.

Commissioner Dennis Smith said the question was simple.

"I think we need to keep from getting mucked up in something we can't consider," said Smith, who voted yes. "I may not want it next to my house, but that makes no difference."

The county's staff recommended approval, with a few conditions. Whatever people might think about immigration or border security is irrelevant, they said.

Gulf Coast is not asking to expand its 7,403-square-foot building or add employees.

The boys have no history of crime and have been screened for illnesses, its representatives said. The boys also see a local pediatrician when they arrive. They will not attend local schools or drive vehicles. The shelter will be staffed around the clock.

"I think we got the chance to clarify some things," Gulf Coast executive director Rochelle Tatrai-Ray said after the meeting.

Romo, a well-known advocate for migrant workers, said afterward that she was alarmed at some opponents' comments about immigrants.

"It's so sad," she said. "If this is a microcosm of the view of people in this country, we're in trouble."

Contact Lisa Buie at lbuie@tampabay.com.

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