The Newton City Commission voted 4-0 Friday against issuing a letter of support to a local nonprofit that wants to house immigrant children who enter the country unaccompanied.
EmberHope, a nonprofit faith-based agency, has applied for a federal grant to house children at its Youthville facility in Newton, according to Newton spokeswoman Erin McDaniel. It was seeking a letter of support from the city as part of its application process.
The vote followed an hour-long meeting in which 13 people spoke, with only one person in support of the letter. The special meeting drew an overflow crowd of about 90 people at Newton City Hall.
Speakers against the letter generally were concerned about illnesses the children might bring, language barriers and gang activities. A couple of speakers threatened to leave the community if Newton housed the children.
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Shelley Duncan, president and CEO of EmberHope, said she wasn’t surprised by the vote.
“I know it’s a very controversial issue and there’s a lot of emotion attached to it,” she said.
She didn’t know how the vote would affect the grant proposal. The letter was not a requirement of the grant. EmberHope will have to decide whether to proceed with the proposal, Duncan said.
“I think it could potentially impact the chances we would have,” she said. “That would depend on the federal grant reviewers.”
More than 50,000 children, many of them unaccompanied, have crossed the border in the last year, fleeing violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The influx has caused overcrowding at government facilities where the children are held as they await deportation proceedings.
A news release from Newton said the 36-month grant would enable EmberHope to serve 30 children, each of whom would stay about five weeks while awaiting placement with family members or a sponsor family. School classes, health care and other services would all be provided on the Youthville campus. EmberHope would hire about 50 new employees, the release said.
Matt McBrayer, a Newton preacher, said during the meeting that Christians were being put in a difficult situation by President Obama because they want to be compassionate but also stand up for the law.
After citing some Biblical references, McBrayer said, “We’d be facilitating something that is illegal, therefore sinful.”
McBrayer also said kids coming into a different environment “would have a huge negative effect on the society, even in Newton.”
Lance Gormley, of Newton, said there are too many unknowns about the situation to approve a letter.
“There is an unknown as to whether these children will possibly be a detriment to my children,” he said.
“The reality is that my children and my life will be affected by this. And nobody can guarantee me that the effect won’t be negative.
“If this happens, I will move out of this community. I feel that strongly about it.”
Sherri Rawlins spoke in favor of the letter. She said she is a former public school employee who once worked with Youthville, but isn’t affiliated with EmberHope.
“I want to remind you that we’re talking about children,” she said. “In whatever context we frame this, we’re still talking about children.
“If we do nothing, they do not disappear. We have, as Christians and as a moral community, the obligation to extend a hand to them on a temporary basis until we can get this mess sorted out.”
Travis Robinson said working through Christ doesn’t require money from the federal government. He said EmberHope should reach out to churches for funding.
“If you want to be able to take care of these kids in the most compassionate way, and you really want to see Christ move, use the local churches,” he said.
Amy Lippoldt, pastor at Trinity Heights United Methodist Church in Newton, attended the meeting but wasn’t able to get on the docket to speak. She said afterward that she was disappointed by the council’s action.
She said the dominance of speakers against the letter presented an unbalanced viewpoint that didn’t represent Newton as a whole.
“I understand the fears that some of my fellow citizens have, but I also, as a pastor, feel the mandate is pretty clear from the Bible about what does it mean to care for the most vulnerable in the world, and these children fall into that category,” Lippoldt said.
Newton Mayor Leroy Koehn said after the meeting that the city had been confronted with a difficult issue.
“It’s frustrating that Washington pushes down to the local level these types of decisions instead of dealing with it in an appropriate way in Washington,” he said.