Opposition is mounting against a proposal from a Stone Mountain pastor to open a shelter in Marietta to house unaccompanied immigrant children seized at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Mitchell Bryant, a pastor and managing partner with the non-profit Freemont Grace Human Services, wants to use a vacant building at 119 Powers Ferry Road to house up to 50 children in custody of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Bryant obtained approval in October from the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals to use the building as a shelter.
The owner of the property, a former Marietta city council member, issued a statement Wednesday saying he doesn’t want to be in conflict with the neighbors and does not support the proposal. He had previously been silent on Bryant’s plans.
Six nearby residents filed a letter with the city in opposition to the shelter and calling on the Council to use their “moral sensibility” to deny the shelter. They argue that unaccompanied migrant children are the “most traumatized children in our society,” and Bryant has not provided evidence that he has the knowledge and skills to address their needs.
READ | Unaccompanied immigrant children could be housed at Marietta shelter
The residents who signed the letter are Art Wickman, Karen Anderson-Cordova, Lisa Gonzalez, Helen Hobson, the Rev. Deborah Bennett from Emerson Unitarian Universalist Congregation and Karen Abel. They join attorney Ronna Woodruff, who previously filed an appeal to Bryant's proposal on behalf of her law firm, which is located nearby. The appeals kick the case to the City Council, which will make a final decision on Bryant's request at a meeting 4:30 p.m. Dec. 11.
If Marietta leaders approve Bryant’s request, it would put the city at the center of national debate surrounding the U.S. policy of separating immigrant families who illegally cross the border, the residents write in the letter.
“That issue is the reality that current immigration policy includes separating children from their parents, or other responsible caregivers,” the letter reads. “This is an issue that must violate the moral sensibility of every citizen of Marietta.”
RELATED | Proposed shelter for immigrant children goes to Marietta City Council
The saga surrounding the case took an unexpected turn Wednesday when the property owner, former Marietta councilman Philip Goldstein, submitted a letter to the city asking to withdraw Bryant’s application. Goldstein, who bought the property in June, said he is aware of “definite opposition from the adjoining residential neighborhood.”
“I served on Council for over 37 years and directly represented the neighborhood for most of that time,” he said. “I built relationships there and do not wish to be in conflict with a neighborhood that has treated me well and supported me over the years.”
City Attorney Doug Haynie said Goldstein’s request is not valid because his company, Marietta Properties LLC, did not apply for the zoning variance in the first place. Mayor Steve Tumlin added Goldstein “can’t pull it off (the agenda) just because the heat’s there.”
“If we don’t do anything, we would miss our bite at the apple to address whether this was a good zoning decision,” Tumlin said.
Bryant said he has not signed a lease with Goldstein for the Powers Ferry Road building. If they can’t reach a deal, Bryant said he will continue his search for another building in the Atlanta area. He also said he’s looking forward to arguing for his shelter before the City Council.
“I’m still encouraged,” he said of his chances.
READ | Feds halt efforts to open Atlanta-area shelter for immigrant children
Freemont Grace Holdings, the parent company of the non-profit, is seeking a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, Bryant said, to pay to renovate the building and hire shelter staff. Bryant told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he has not heard back about the status of his application, filed in November..
As part of the grant-writing process, Bryant said he had to submit a budget outlining how much it would cost to get the program up and running. If he is awarded a grant, Bryant said he will use the funding to make necessary renovations to the building and hire about 34 staffers needed for the program.
The plan to open the shelter comes amid a reported surge of immigrants — most of them from Central America — crossing the country’s Southwest border. Once children are apprehended there, they are placed in the care of the HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement. That office provides care until they can find sponsors to keep the children while their cases move through immigration court. Sponsors are usually their parents or other relatives.
Federal border authorities apprehended 76,020 children traveling without their parents across the Southwest border in the fiscal year ending in September, a 52% increase from the prior year. Many are fleeing deprivation and gang violence in their native countries.
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