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GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) – We now have answers to at least some of the questions that residents and officials had raised about the immigrant children who will be housed under a federal contract at the former American Hebrew Academy in Greensboro.

Skip Alston (WGHP File Photo)

Melvin “Skip” Alston, chair of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners, and a host of officials from the city and county were on hand for about a 2-hour meeting on Tuesday afternoon with a panel of leaders from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services that Alston described as “very transparent” and full of “a lot of information” about the Greensboro Piedmont Influx Care Facility.

Alston said it remains unclear when children would be arriving at the facility, but he said officials “projected possibly by the end of this year” as they seek to hire about 1,500 employees to man the facility and provide the required oversight.

Alston said his group was told at the meeting that these will be children between the ages of 13 and 17 years old – “about 800 at the peak” – and that they will be housed in Greensboro perhaps for about two to three weeks.

HHS is paying nearly $50 million for 5 years – with a 5-year option – to lease the 100 gated acres at 4334 Hobbs Road under a contract that began on June 9 and ends on July 8, 2027.

American Hebrew Academy

The facility includes 31 buildings of 412,712 square feet, an $18 million athletic center and natatorium, a variety of athletic fields and even a 22-acre lake, and it would be used to provide housing, classrooms and recreational facilities for children who are unaccompanied or who are waiting for family members and sponsors.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement operates about 200 such facilities in 22 states and has done so since 2002’s Homeland Security Act. In Fiscal Year 2021 the program has handled 122,731 children, its information sheet says.

The meetings

The meeting on Tuesday was one of two led by “six or seven equals” from DHHS and ORR. Alston said he was joined by Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan, City Council member Nancy Hoffmann and Commissioner Justin Conrad, in whose districts the facility is located; at-large Commissioner Kay Cashion; County Manager Michael Halford; City Manager Taiwo Jaiyeoba; and Assistant County Manager Victor Isler, who oversees social services.

Guilford County Commissioner Justin Conrad

There was a second meeting that Alford described as stakeholders from community groups, but it was unclear if they represented homeowners in the area who had submitted a list of questions, as had 6th District U.S. Rep. Kathy Manning (D-Greensboro) on their behalf.

Vaughan was headed into a City Council meeting but indicated she would comment when she could. But Alford and Conrad provided what they heard in response to at least some of the questions that were being asked.

“That they want to be transparent as possible,” Alford said. “They are not anything trying to hide or to pull wool over anybody’s eyes. There were no questions that we asked that they didn’t answer.

“This was not the first time they had encountered these questions.”

But Conrad said he wasn’t happy about how the event unfolded and that he had continuing questions about how the facility would be managed and by the level of security that is involved.

Moreover, Conrad said he didn’t like being in the middle of questions between the public and the federal government. He said, he, Alston and Vaughan all pushed the organizers to have a press conference to discuss their plans and said he felt DHHS had “a lack of transparency.”

“It’s not our responsibility to relay their plans,” he said. “That’s their job. They were quick to push that idea aside. As big as this is … the agency needs to be one talking to the public.

“I heard them saying that no one there was authorized to give a press conference, that no one [in the meeting] was authorized to make a decision to speak to the press.”

The former American Hebrew Academy now is identified by its address on Hobbs Road in Greensboro. (LAURIE DENBERG)

The security issue

Perhaps the most pressing concern of residents is security, and Alston described what he heard as “tight security” provided by DHHS. He said no one would be allowed to leave the facility or to enter it unless they have been fully vetted.

“No one will be able to get in or out without their knowing it … tight security around entire complex,” he said.

But Conrad said his questions about security and vetting weren’t fully answered. “They contradicted themselves,” he said. “One person said, ‘ICE does all the vetting and gets the information to us about their past history … medical history … criminal history.’ Another said that no one with a criminal history would be there. Which is it?”

No one 18 is supposed to be allowed in a facility, but Conrad asked, what happens when a child turns 18? “They said that would do everything to get a person to a sponsored home or facility before that date,” Conrad said. “What about girls? 13-17 is the group most vulnerable to human trafficking. What if one gets out?”

Said Alston: “They are not bringing anybody in here associated with gangs. Not bringing in anyone who has been raping anyone or hurting anyone. That kind of person is in another camp.”


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Other answers

Answers to some of the key questions as relayed by Alston and Conrad:

  • The “flex care” is for two to three weeks at a time. The ratio of counselors to children is supposed to be 8 to 1.
  • The announced plan to hire about 800 has grown to more like 1,500. Alston said attendees asked about a potential “drain on the area’s talent pool, a strain on our talent base. They said they would work to make sur that didn’t happen. They would hire local people, also.”
  • Alston reiterated what Vaughan had been saying since the announcement, that there would not be a strain on community and social services. “All of that is being done in-house,” Alston said.

The future

The contract for the property is a 5-year deal with a 5-year option to extend, but Alston said officials said they would evaluate that in the future.

“It’s not a site that they want to make permanently, he said. “If they need to extend the lease, they possibly would. But they are dealing with children, and most transitioning out.”