Commack church mulls plan to house immigrant children amid protest


Rev. Dennis Walker, of the Holy Cross Lutherian Church in Commack, inside of the sanctuary on Aug. 12, 2014. Photo Credit: Johnny Milano

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A Lutheran church in Commack may host some of the tens of thousands of immigrant children illegally crossing the United States' border with Mexico mainly to reunite with family here, the church's pastor said Tuesday.

The financially troubled Holy Cross Lutheran Church had to cancel a meeting last week after outraged neighbors packed the church to protest the proposal, but Rev. Dennis Walker said the congregation is still considering it and hopes to meet in coming weeks to decide.

Walker said community opposition was being fueled by misinformation about the proposal, and he hopes "people will reconsider in a more rational light. This is minimal impact on the community with substantial benefits" such as jobs for workers who would remodel the building to create the living quarters.

The proposal calls for about 40 children, 4 to 17, to be housed at the church at any one time between seven and 30 days, Walker said. The children would be in transit from federal immigration detention facilities to relatives in the New York area, and would leave only for medical appointments or other important issues, Walker said.

The children would be subject to hearings before federal immigration authorities and could ultimately be deported, he said. The church would be guaranteed a minimal three-year pact to house children.

The proposal was brought to the church by Lutheran Social Services of New York, the Manhattan-based agency that would cover cost for the renovation, using federal funds. After consulting the congregation, the church council would have to approve the plan.

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Nearby residents firmly oppose the idea. "It's scary," said Sheryl Cambria, 35, a special-education teacher at Lindenhurst High School. "I have two little kids. Who's to say my house is going to be safe?" New York City firefighter Michael Cantwell, 44, said, "It's basically going to be a hotel right next to my house."

Kenneth J. Wolfe, a spokesman for the federal Administration for Children and Families, which oversees the immigrant children program, said the agency is releasing only the names of locations already approved as sites.

MercyFirst, a social service agency run by the Syosset-based Sisters of Mercy, is hosting some of the children. Plans for a shelter at a former Grumman Corp. complex in Bethpage were nixed in June.

Nationally, the Administration for Children and Families projects it will have to find beds for as many as 60,000 boys and girls in the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. That is up from nearly 25,000 placed in the preceding year.

Walker said the Commack church is in dire financial straits after a day care business stopped renting space in June.

The immigrant children program could bring in $8,000 to $10,000 a month, help pay off a $25,000 debt -- and allow the church to do the Christian thing, he said.

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