July 21, 2014 at 4:06 pm

Housing migrant kids splits small Michigan town

Leszek Sulanowski of Deford, Mich., joins the protest in Vassar over a proposal to house 120 migrant children in town. There have been two demonstrations and a community meeting over the issue. (Photos by Elizabeth Conley / The Detroit News)

Vassar— When people opposed to housing young Central American immigrants here claimed the youths worked for drug cartels, Adam Barden was frustrated.

When the opponents attended demonstrations armed with semi-automatic rifles, he was perplexed.

And when they threatened to boycott his hardware store for not agreeing with them, he got angry.

“They’re doing damage to our community,” said Barden, 38, owner of True Value. “It really ticks you off.”

A bitter national debate over what to do with tens of thousands of young immigrants pouring into the U.S. is playing out in this small town 20 miles east of Saginaw.

The heavy-handed tactics, mostly from out-of-town groups, are bruising feelings and plunging the already financially reeling community into further turmoil, residents said.

The issue was highly charged even before the opponents held two demonstrations and a raucous community meeting earlier this month.

Among those chafing at the methods are conservative residents.

“Rumors are as good as facts around here,” said T.J. Beckman, 25, a pet groomer who would welcome the children.

Crystal Damico, co-owner of Crystal’s County Cuts pet grooming, also supports the arrival of the immigrants.

Damico, trimming a trembling poodle in her downtown shop last week, said one of her relatives would remove her child from the school system if the “Mexican” children come.

The immigrants are from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador and would be taught at the facility housing them, not in local schools.

“It’s ridiculous,” said Damico, 30, who is part Hispanic. “They’re making something out of nothing.”

The source of all the friction is a proposal to house 120 migrant children at a sprawling juvenile treatment facility run by the private Wolverine Human Services of Grosse Pointe Park.

The youths, ages 12-17, would stay at the facility’s tree-laden, 130-acre campus for two to four weeks while officials connect them with a relative or sponsor, said Derrick McCree, senior vice president for Wolverine.

They’re among 57,000 immigrants who have entered the U.S. alone after fleeing drug-related violence in the Central American countries since the fall.

“We’ll do anything in our power to help children,” McCree said.

The federal government is reviewing the proposal, but no timetable has been set for a decision.

'We have nothing'

In Vassar, rows of petunias lining downtown streets offer a bright spot in the community of 2,700.

The white, pink, red and purple flowers contrast with a steady beat of grim economic news.

The Vassar Theatre, the only movie house, closed in March.

Betty Lou’s, a popular restaurant with a fading mural of “Indian Dave” on the façade, succumbed before that.

A long-struggling foundry that once was a major employer finally shuttered to fiscal reality.

Rod Diener, 53, ticked off the closings as he waited for his laundry at Vassar Laundromat, the closest one to his home six miles away.

“I don’t know why they picked Vassar,” said Diener, who is unemployed. “We have nothing.”

One reason residents would welcome the Central Americans is the financial boost they would provide.

Their arrival would create jobs at Wolverine, which has 120 empty beds, said McCree. It also would increase state funding to the school district, whose teachers would travel to the facility.

But other residents feel the economic boost isn’t worth it. They said the U.S. should be more concerned about helping veterans and the elderly than people entering the country illegally.

“We have people of our own we need to take care of,” said Pauline Anthony, 80, a retired machinist who lives alone near the Wolverine facility.

She said the immigrants concern her more than the facility’s juvenile delinquents.

Flags, guns at protest

During a public meeting where Wolverine discussed its plans earlier this month, McCree said the community had a chance to set the tone in the national debate over the immigrants.

Opponents hope he’s right but not in the way he intended.

One week after demonstrating in Vassar, several conservative groups from around the state returned last week to hold a second protest.

Among them were Michiganders for Immigration Control and Enforcement, pro-gun Michigan Three Percenters, Michigan Sons of Liberty Riders motorcycle group and tea party groups from Genesee County and the western Thumb.

Standing in front of Vassar City Hall, they said a vast majority of the immigrant children are criminals, belonging to gangs and drug cartels.

Matt Krol said the youths also are spreading tuberculosis and other diseases.

News accounts have reported a child was hospitalized with swine flu at a Texas military base last month.

“If you allow the immigrants to take over, the country will be destroyed,” said Krol, 56, a building contractor from Linden.

He clutched a 12-foot pole that held an early American flag bearing a coiled rattlesnake.

“My rattle is rattling,” Krol said. “Next is the bite.”

The 50 demonstrators held numerous American flags and signs that railed against the government and President Barack Obama.

Four protesters were armed, two with semi-automatic rifles.

They declined to say why they had firearms. One produced a business card that identified himself as a member of the Three Percenters, which supports open carry.

“When tyranny becomes law,” read the card, “rebellion becomes duty.”

Other demonstrators were nervous about their armed peers.

“I don’t understand the guns,” said Jake Jacobson, a retired airline pilot from Lake Odessa.

When the protesters marched to the Wolverine facility a mile away, they passed a half-dozen shuttered shops and businesses.

One business remaining open along the route was True Value.

Inside the store, Barden was still seething from an encounter the day before with protest leader Tamyra Murray.

Boycott threatened

Murray had come into the store and asked Barden whether he supported her cause. Told he didn’t, she made a surprised face and left.

Several hours later, she posted Barden’s view on her Facebook page.

In response, several people said they would stop shopping there and would encourage others to do the same.

“Businesses that throw in their lot with corrupted government need to be ‘heard’ from by consumers,” wrote Nathan Bickel, a retired Lutheran minister from Bay City who gave an invocation during the demonstration.

By that night, the hardware store’s Facebook page had received several messages from people criticizing the business and saying they would no longer shop there.

As Barden discussed the incident with a reporter last week, a shopper who knew Murray asked what the owner was talking about.

“She told people not to shop in my store because I don’t agree with her,” Barden told him. “It’s pretty dirty what she did.”

The shopper, retired dentist Eugene Surmont, said Murray had tried to get a list of all the businesses in town but wasn’t able to do so.

Murray, asked later why she had sought the businesses’ names, said she just wanted to get their support for her cause. She said she wouldn’t have boycotted anyone disagreeing with her.

“Don’t you feel like we’re guided by God?” she asked demonstrators during the rally. “I’ve never doubted myself or paused for a minute.”

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'We have people of our own we need to take care of,' said Pauline Anthony, ... (Elizabeth Conley / The Detroit News)
Pet groomers Crystal Damico and T.J. Beckman support housing the children. ... (Elizabeth Conley / The Detroit News)