Religious leaders and immigrant advocates are joining forces to call on Long Islanders to be more welcoming to the hundreds of unaccompanied immigrant children who have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally and been placed temporarily in facilities here.
The leaders say a public prayer service and news conference planned for Friday aims partly to counter the response of Commack residents who strongly opposed a proposal to house some of the children at Holy Cross Lutheran Church.
The 1 p.m. event at Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Catholic Church in Wyandanch is billed as one of the largest gatherings ever of faith leaders on Long Island addressing immigration issues. A dozen Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders from Nassau and Suffolk are expected.
Sister Margaret Smyth, a Catholic nun who heads the North Fork Spanish Apostolate and has worked with some of the children, said Wednesday they deserve compassion.
"To undertake this journey was probably the most terrifying, traumatic thing they've ever done in their lives," said Smyth, who will speak at the event. "They have told me stories of seeing relatives killed, of not having enough food."
She added: "Do I think we have the space and room for them? Yes. Do I think most people in their hearts have the space and room for them? Yes, I do."
Also participating will be the Rev. Charles Coverdale of First Baptist Church in Riverhead, who said the children "are in urgent need, and we should be doing all we can to help them. God tells us we should always welcome the stranger in our midst."
Debate over the issue has erupted in recent months as proposals to temporarily house the children at various sites on Long Island were aired. At a public meeting last month in Commack, angry residents said the children would bring crime and disease, and cause property values to plummet.
Some Commack residents said Wednesday they object to the religious leaders' message.
Justin Dreyer, 36, an electrician and Iraq War veteran who lives near the Lutheran church, said more money and attention should be devoted to the problems of Americans, rather than people who have entered this country illegally.
"We turn a blind eye to our veterans and our homeless people who are American citizens that have fought and put their lives on the line for the country . . . yet we are going to take care of illegal people that have done nothing for this country except drain it," he said.
Friday's event is being organized by the pro-immigrant groups Long Island Jobs with Justice and LI WINS.
Most of the unaccompanied children coming here are said to be fleeing violence, poverty and gangs in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
Authorities say more than 2,200 boys and girls, ages 17 and younger, were released from federal custody in the first seven months of 2014 to live with parents, other relatives or sponsors in Nassau and Suffolk counties.
Lutheran leaders say their Commack proposal has been dropped for now, and is unlikely to be revived any time soon.