The humanitarian crisis of undocumented children from Central America entering the United States came to Newton Friday afternoon.
Newton's city commission called a special meeting to discuss whether it would provide a letter of support to EmberHope, formerly Youthville, in applying for a federal grant that would enable the facility to house "unaccompanied alien children." The grant from the Dept. of Health and Human Services Office of Residential Resettlement (ORR) would be good for 36 months.
A half hour before the meeting started, Newton resident Ed Myers stood outside the city building, holding a sign reading, "Keep illegals out of Newton. Deport Now."
All but one of the 13 people who signed up to speak at the commission's citizen's forum were against the idea of undocumented children being housed in Newton.
"If our venerable president is so intent on helping these children, they can go live at the White House," resident Jennifer Stark said.
Shelley Duncan, president and CEO of EmberHope, said she did not want to discuss the politics of the issue. EmberHope is a faith-based organization and "our commitment is to follow the teachings of Christ," which are to help those in need, she said.
Several of the residents who spoke invoked Christianity and the Bible. Matt McBrayer cited Bible verses about helping people, but also mentioned a scripture from Romans about obeying government authorities.
"Facilitating something that is illegal would be sinful for us to even do," McBrayer said.
Sherri Rawlins, the only resident who spoke in favor of EmberHope's plan to house the children, quoted the Bible verse: "Whatsoever you do for the least of these, you have done for me."
Residents also expressed concerns that the aliens would bring disease and crime into town.
Stephanie Kurtz said the extra law enforcement needed would affect local taxes and have an impact in other nearby communities.
J.R. Allen said, "I don't want the drugs and all the doggone diseases you're going to bring up here."
Duncan addressed the fears about disease, saying immigrants crossing the border have to have medical examinations before they are moved anywhere.
Kyle Smyth said, "I don't want Newton to be labeled as a racist town. We are not racist. This is an issue of law. We are a city that prides itself on following the law. The hypocrisy, if you sign a letter of support, is unfathonable."
Arlen Stark said, "If we agree to this, we'll be encouraging more people to cross our borders illegally."
Commissioner Bob Smyth, who asked Duncan several probing questions, said, "If you were doing legal aliens, I would be for you. We need to send a message to Washington that we're not going to put up with their mickey mouse ways anymore. This is coming from the most lawless administration in our U.S. history and if you don't know that, you haven't been paying attention to what's going on."
Commissioner Raquel Thiesen said while she considered compassion and EmberHope's mission, she said she also had to think about the municipality.
"I don't think this is something the municipality should support," she said.
The commission voted not to write a letter of support for the grant application. With or without the commission's support, however, EmberHope can still apply for the grant. The deadline for the application is Monday. Duncan said after the meeting that she is not sure whether EmberHope will still go forward with the application.
"Our focus is to serve children and to fullfill our mission and our Christian values, but we have to be realistic too. We certainly want our children and our staff to be safe in any program we provide."