Marietta leaders reject shelter for immigrant children

A proposal to open a shelter for unaccompanied migrant children seized from the U.S-Mexico border suffered a major setback, but the pastor behind the project is not ready to throw in the towel.

The Marietta City Council on Wednesday unanimously voted to overturn a Zoning Board of Appeals’ decision and deny a variance to Stone Mountain Pastor Mitchell Bryant for the shelter at a building at 119 Powers Ferry Road.

City Councilman Joseph Goldstein abstained from participating in the debate since his father, former City Councilman Philip Goldstein, owns the property.

Dozens of people attended Wednesday’s meeting, with many holding signs that read “End child detentions.”



If approved, Bryant said the shelter would have employed 34 people and would not be one of the influx centers that, he said, have been at the center of the controversy surrounding children being separated from their parents.

“We would not put something together that would traumatize kids,” he said.

Bryant, a managing partner with the non-profit Freemont Grace Human Services, wanted to use the vacant building to house up to 50 children in custody of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

He obtained approval in October from the city's Zoning Board of Appeals to use the building as a shelter. Several residents appealed that decision, which forced the case before the City Council.

READICE deportations up 5% in Georgia, Carolinas amid influx on border

Attorney Ronna Woodruff, one of the residents who appealed the Zoning Board of Appeals’ decision, said the shelter would be “detaining children against their will.” Art Wickman, another resident who filed an appeal, said allowing the shelter to open in Marietta would violate the city’s “moral sensibilities.”

The Rev. Deborah Bennett of Emerson Unitarian Universalist Congregation, said Bryant has not shown he has the expertise to operate a shelter of this magnitude.

“I would like to see Marietta say no to this, and make sure anything we do for our children is done from a place of knowledge and experience because they are our most precious resource,” she added.



Geovani Serrano told the Council about the emotional turmoil children experience once they are released from detention centers. Those children, he said, often suffer flashbacks and nightmares once they are returned to their parents or relatives.

“To me, it does not matter how beautiful the cage is,” Serrano said. “It’s still a cage.”

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Freemont Grace Holdings, the parent company of Bryant’s 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.

After the Council’s vote, Bryant said he’s still encouraged by the process. If his grant application is approved, he said he will look for other sites for the shelter.

“We accomplished what we wanted to do and that was to get the truth out,” he said. “We are going to go forward.”

The proposal 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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