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1,500 Miles From The Southern Border, Immigration Fight Disrupts Michigan Town

NOEL KING, HOST:

A small city in Michigan is posing a test for the Biden administration's immigration policy. Alma is 1,500 miles away from the U.S.-Mexico border. Officials there are going to vote on whether to permit a shelter in the city for kids who cross the border without their families. Here's Brett Dahlberg with member station WCMU.

BRETT DAHLBERG, BYLINE: Normally, children fleeing violence and human trafficking in Central America would be housed in a shelter near the southern border while the federal government works with nonprofit groups to place them with a family member in this country. But those facilities are reaching capacity as the number of kids crossing the border by themselves increases. In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott has revoked the licenses of several shelters in that state. So the federal government has to look ever further from the southern border for places that can shelter refugee kids. In some places, it goes smoothly. Elizabeth Carey runs Starr Commonwealth, a group that welcomed about 200 migrant children to a shelter in Albion, Mich., about 100 miles west of Detroit.

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ELIZABETH CAREY: Actually, we have been just overwhelmed with joy about the outpouring of support we've received since this announcement.

DAHLBERG: Other shelters in Montana, Pennsylvania and North Dakota have taken in children. But approval is far from certain in Alma, where Yvette Franco-Clark is organizing opposition. She worries that immigration will funnel crime to the city of 9,000. It's a city where 98% of the population was born in the U.S. In addition, she doesn't trust the motives of Bethany Christian Services, which would run the shelter here.

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YVETTE FRANCO-CLARK: They're abusing Christianity to make a buck - plain and simple. And the people out there are saying, oh, we need to help them do that. We need to help them do this humanitarian work because you're not a Christian if you don't want to help these kids.

DAHLBERG: The U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement says it runs rigorous checks on everyone who crosses the border seeking asylum. And Bethany says as a charitable organization, it will not profit from a shelter in Alma. But those statements aren't easing the opposition's concerns. And that leaves the city's faith leaders struggling to figure out how to address the issue with their deeply divided congregations.

KATRINA PEKICH-BUNDY: I have not directly talked about it.

DAHLBERG: Katrina Pekich-Bundy is the pastor at Alma's First Presbyterian Church.

PEKICH-BUNDY: I have brought up how Jesus welcomed those who most of society turned away.

DAHLBERG: Pekich-Bundy says to her, there's a clear direction for the church - welcoming young refugees. But she's not sure if Alma is ready for it.

PEKICH-BUNDY: Having seen some of the yelling and the anger and the hate, it makes me question if this would be welcoming for somebody who's a person of color.

DAHLBERG: Muzaffar Chishti is a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute. He says the surge of young migrants crossing the southern border is forcing the federal government to look for shelters in places it normally wouldn't, where opposition to the refugees can be strong.

MUZAFFAR CHISHTI: It does become much more potent in places which don't have a lot of history of immigration. Numbers do matter.

DAHLBERG: Chishti says a proposal to house 40 migrant children in New York or Miami or Los Angeles might not raise concerns in the same way it does in a town like Alma.

CHISHTI: This is a very thick soup of anxiety that we are dealing with.

DAHLBERG: But Chishti says big-city shelters are running out of room, and putting these shelters in small towns is a tough sell. He says if current immigration trends continue and places like Alma don't allow shelters for unaccompanied children, the federal government will struggle to follow its own laws and guidelines on how to care for migrant kids. For NPR news, I'm Brett Dahlberg in Alma, Mich.

(SOUNDBITE OF YONDERLING AND FEVERKIN'S "SUNROOM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.