Lutheran church officials, Commack neighbors face off on immigrant children's housing

The Holy Cross Lutheran Church of Commack held a public forum on Aug. 19, 2014, to discuss the possibility of housing immigrant children at the church while they are placed with family members already in the United States. (Credit: Newsday / Jessica Rotkiewicz)

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A public meeting Tuesday night about a proposal to temporarily house immigrant children at Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Commack turned into a heated standoff between church leaders and outraged community members.

The Rev. Dennis A. Walker of Holy Cross cited Bible passages about welcoming the stranger and referred to the United States' history as an immigrant nation to try to rally support for the proposal.

Church officials have shelved the plan for now but haven't ruled it out entirely.

"We are an immigrant nation," Walker told the standing-room-only crowd of about 70 people, with others waiting outside the meeting room at the Smithtown Public Library's Commack branch. "We are an immigrant church," with a long history of helping newcomers.

But his comments and those of another church leader, as well as the head of a program housing immigrant children in Syosset, appeared to fail to sway those in attendance.

Many residents cited the fact that the children are part of thousands who have illegally crossed Mexico's border with the United States.

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"We don't want them, and we're not going to tolerate them," said Steve Vuolo, 56, a dentist, as the crowd applauded.

"If you're seeing this outrage . . . why don't you just drop it and think of another solution?" said another resident, Laura Tobia.

Elif Binger, 35, a drug and alcohol abuse counselor, offered to volunteer at the church to help develop other projects as long as they do not involve housing immigrants who have entered the country illegally.

"The property is too small," she had said earlier. "It is not a safe environment for the children to be caged in like animals 24 hours a day. It's inhumane."

Gerald McCaffery, president of MercyFirst in Syosset, which has been housing some immigrant children for the past six months, tried to allay residents' concerns that the children could bring crime, disease or gang activity.

"The kids have not been problematic at all," he said. "We have not seen any health issues. We have not had any gang issues."

The financially struggling Lutheran church this week shelved the housing proposal after community protest.

Walker has said the proposal -- which never moved beyond the talking stage -- called for housing about 40 children, ages 4 to 17, at the church at any one time for a week to 30 days. The children would be in transit from federal detention facilities to relatives in the New York area. They would leave the church only for medical appointments or other important reasons, he said.

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The program would be administered by Manhattan-based Lutheran Social Services of New York, using money from the federal government.

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