An Arizona-based youth-services agency is planning to house 60 immigrant children, all of whom arrived alone at the U.S. border with Mexico, in a property it's now preparing in North Philadelphia.

For two days, talk that the city would be the site of a shelter for children caught up in the nation's immigration crisis ricocheted through local migrant and youth agencies — upsetting some who questioned why a sanctuary city like Philadelphia should accept the confinement of immigrant children within its boundaries.

In a phone interview Wednesday, VisionQuest CEO Peter Ranalli confirmed that his agency has signed a contract with the federal government to house the children, all boys, ages 12 to 17, in a facility in the Logan neighborhood, just south of Einstein Medical Center. The children would come here from other shelters, located in places around the United States, he said.

City officials weren't pleased.

"This is highly disturbing news and we are still investigating the facts," said Mike Dunn, a spokesperson for Mayor Kenney. "But assuming the currently known facts are true, the city is confident that the proposed use would be illegal under the existing use permits and the city plans to vigorously apply the law."

Ranalli said none of the children who would be housed here are among those separated from their parents at the southern border — circumstances that provoked a national outcry and a reversal in Trump administration policy. All are among those youths described as "unaccompanied minors," part of a tide of thousands who have arrived at the border on their own, fleeing violence in their homelands.

Most come from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico.

Family Unit Apprehensions on the Rise

Apprehensions along the southern border, 2012-2018
SOURCE: Pew Research Center
Staff Graphic

Beginning under President Barack Obama, the federal government placed those migrant children in closed housing, pending their transfer to relatives such as aunts or uncles who were already living in the United States.

Some youths have no family here. They may be sent to live with unrelated sponsors as they await courtroom immigration proceedings.

The 60 children will arrive in Philadelphia in stages, the first not for at least two months, Ranalli said. All are native Spanish-speakers. None are recent arrivals to the United States.

Immigration agents apprehended about 6,400 unaccompanied children on the nation's Southwest border in May, according to the Pew Research Center. That number was higher than each previous month in 2018, and a big increase over the 1,473 who were apprehended in May 2017, Pew said. But in June the number of unaccompanied children dropped to about 5,100.

Ranalli said the leased property, located in the Logan Plaza complex on Old York Road, was "not a shelter," and was being transformed into a dormitory-like setting, one that will be comfortable and even homey for the youths.

The minors will receive legal services, developmental aid, counseling, and other therapies as needed, he said, as officials seek to find adult sponsors who might serve as foster parents. He said VisionQuest planned to hire about 80 people to work at the site.

None of the children would be allowed to leave the facility without supervision, he said.

"They're really good kids," Ranalli said. "Nobody's going to have a problem with them."

Peter Gottemoller, who directs Bethany Christian Services refugee programs and who has long worked with unaccompanied minors, said the VisionQuest site concerns him.

Minors living in shelters must be able to go outside, to get exercise, and breathe fresh air. That's why similar facilities often are deliberately located in former school buildings or other places with substantial, surrounding grounds.

"Them being cooped up in a building doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me," Gottemoller said. "You've got teenagers who need the outlet of being able to get out and run around."

Ranalli said the children will have plenty of room. The same space previously housed more than double the number of kids, 125 in all, when VisionQuest ran a juvenile-justice facility there.

The agency operates in six states, including Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, focused on helping youths who have become involved in the court and correctional systems or who are otherwise at risk.

The agency began its work in late 1960s and early 1970s, when founder Bob Burton worked in juvenile corrections facilities. He imagined an alternative after serving as a VISTA volunteer working with the Crow peoples in Montana, according to the agency website.

In 1973 he met an Arizona judge, John Collins of the Pima County Juvenile Court in Tucson, who placed the first six youthful offenders into VisionQuest care. What began as a residential program soon added an outdoor wilderness component. Within three years, about 130 children were in group home and home-based programs in Arizona.

VisionQuest said it ensures that the children in its care are safe, that families are respected and communities protected. The agency remains rooted in American Indian culture, where a traditional "vision quest" marks the transition from child to adult, according to its website.

Pathways to Housing PA, which helps chronically homeless people find decent places to live, has offices in the same Logan Plaza complex as VisionQuest.

President and CEO Christine Simiriglia said that in the last couple of days, word had spread that VisionQuest planned to house immigrant minors there. That was confirmed, she said, when the Pathways staffer who runs the furniture bank told her he had been approached by VisionQuest, which wanted furniture for its new setting.

"I said, 'Tell them I'm sorry we can't help with that,' " Simiriglia said. "We're opposed to this. We don't think the City of Philadelphia, a sanctuary city, should be allowing agencies to warehouse detained children."