By Kathryn Watson | Watchdog.org, Virginia Bureau
ALEXANDRIA, Va. — One small Virginia town is the target of a racial discrimination complaint from a fair housing group and a shuttered college, the potential beneficiary of a plan to house minors who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.
Word broke this summer the federal government — at the original suggestion of Virginia Secretary of Health and Human Resources Bill Hazel and Secretary of Education Anne Holton — was pursuing a contract with the closed St. Paul’s College in Lawrenceville to house what could be hundreds of immigrants.
Locals made it clear they had serious concerns, and about 1,000 people showed up at a June 19 town hall meeting in the Southern Virginia town of 1,300 to protest.
The federal government consequently backed down and looked elsewhere to house the teens and younger children.
Now, the private St. Paul’s College — which would have received a much-needed $160,000 a month to house the youth — and the fair-housing group Home Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia, are filing a housing discrimination complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development against the town of Lawrenceville, surrounding Brunswick County and Brunswick County’s elected Sheriff Brian Roberts.
HOME and St. Paul’s College allege the county, town and sheriff “orchestrated and implemented a plan to block the deal,” the complaint obtained by Watchdog.org reads. “Purported concerns by these individuals are grounded in false stereotypes about Latinos and reflect discrimination based on race, color, and/or national origin.”
The complaint argues that anyone in the country — not just legal residents — is protected by law.
An official vote from local elected officials wasn’t taken, but Helen O’Beirne Hardiman, director of fair housing for HOME, said their vocal influence prevented children from being housed and is legally sufficient for the complaint.
“It is a little different from other fair housing cases against localities where you do have an official vote or a city council has passed an ordinance,” Hardiman told Watchdog.org. “… The officials really organized the backlash and they provided this platform for townspeople to voice their opposition. And, ultimately, I think that the officials are really responsible for the deal being squashed.”
But Brunswick County Sheriff Brian Roberts, who is named in the complaint because he investigated residents’ concerns and
opposes the housing plan, said the complaint has “zero merit.”
“I think it’s a desperation on the (part) of (St. Paul’s College President) Pete Stith just grasping for anything to create controversy,” he said.
Stith didn’t return requests for comment Monday but issued a joint news release with HOME.
“Because of this decision, St. Paul’s has been severely injured,” he said in the release. “The school would have received $160,000 a month in rent from the federal government. This project would have given St. Paul’s College the much-needed funding to complete necessary improvements to the campus and repay creditors.”
St. Paul’s campus, which closed to students last year, is in debt and for sale.
But Roberts said his job is to “serve and protect” the people of Brunswick County. After spending six days this summer investigating possible safety concerns that could come with housing undocumented children, Roberts, like many others in Lawrenceville, opposed the plan.
“Everybody has a constitutional right to have an opinion and express a position,” Roberts said.
He was concerned about safety, not race.
“Race never came up until this complaint,” Roberts said.
Roberts said the St. Paul’s situation was thrown on the people without their input or consent.
“That whole fiasco was really the federal government and just pure mishandling,” Roberts said. “Lack of communication, lack of transparency, lack of consistency. Everything was a train wreck.”
Roberts, who was first elected sheriff in 2007, said this is new territory for him.
“Obviously, I’ve never been sued or had any complaints like this filed against me, so I’m a little baffled,” he said. “I’ve sought legal counsel.”
As of Monday, the County of Brunswick, the town of Lawrenceville and Roberts are still awaiting papers from the feds.
“Our position at this time is, candidly, we’ve heard about it but we … have not been served any documents at the time,” Lawrenceville Mayor William H. Herrington told Watchdog.org.
Watchdog.org also reached out to Democratic state Sen. Louise Lucas and Republican U.S. Congressman Robert Hurt for comment, but we didn’t hear back.
The town rejected the plan, but that doesn’t necessarily complete the debate, Hardiman said.
“We would love, if it’s not too late, for HHS to reconsider the deal with St. Paul’s to house the children there,” Hardiman said. “The children at St. Paul’s have certainly been dramatically injured, and we would like to prevent further injury, if possible.”
This case serves as a lesson for other localities, too, she said.
“We want municipalities to know that they can’t step in and block housing opportunities for people based on their race color and national origin.”
Kathryn Watson is an investigative reporter for Watchdog.org’s Virginia Bureau, and can be reached on Twitter @kathrynw5.