Refugee Shelter Proposal Tears Alma Community Apart as Vote on Rezoning Nears

The Alma City Commission is set to vote Tuesday on whether to approve a shelter for young people who crossed the border without their families — and whatever decision the city makes, it’s going to leave part of its population disappointed and angry.

Pat Touzeau is leaving town.

She’s moving out of a duplex at the masonic home in Alma. She’s known since she got here that she’s a bit of an outsider.

“I am a liberal in a very conservative community,” she says.

But it’s a recent fight over a shelter for young asylum-seekers that’s made her realize just how strongly she disagrees with her neighbors.

“[The refugees are] in search of somewhere safe to go, and in many instances it’s a life-or-death situation.” –Krista Stevens, Bethany Christian Services

The masonic home where Touzeau lives also owns a nursing home closer to the edge of the city, just before the soybean fields. That home is vacant, though; it closed when the number of residents fell during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Brett Dahlberg/WCMU
Brett Dahlberg/WCMU

Now, there’s a proposal to convert the empty nursing home into a temporary shelter for young people who have crossed the southern border without their families and are seeking asylum in the U.S.

Experts say shelters like this are growing increasingly important. The number of unaccompanied minors crossing the southern border is growing. That’s pushing the federal government to look ever further from the southern border for places that can care for refugee kids.

Bethany Christian Services, based in Grand Rapids, would run the shelter in Alma. Executive Director Krista Stevens says the children who would stay at the shelter are fleeing potentially fatal circumstances, including violence, corruption, trafficking and extreme poverty.

“They’re in search of somewhere safe to go, and in many instances it’s a life-or-death situation,” she says.

But there’s a vocal segment of the Alma population that’s been showing up to city meetings and organizing opposition to the proposed shelter.

Yvette Franco-Clark leads We the County, one of the groups against the shelter. Franco-Clark organized a succession of people to speak at city commission meetings in Alma “to stand against Bethany Christian Services.”

Franco-Clark says she doesn’t trust the vetting process the children go through before they can be placed in Alma, and she doesn’t trust the motives of the staff at Bethany Christian Services.

The charity “is doing nothing more than saying they’re doing Jesus’s work while making money off of these kids,” Franco-Clark said at one of the group’s meetings.

“They’re abusing Christianity to make a buck, plain and simple,” Franco-Clark said. 

The U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement says it runs rigorous checks on everyone who crosses the border seeking asylum. Stevens says as a charitable organization, Bethany won’t profit from a shelter in Alma.

Brett Dahlberg/WCMU
Brett Dahlberg/WCMU

Meanwhile, Alma’s faith leaders are trying to figure out how to address the divisions without alienating half their congregation.

Katrina Pekich-Bundy, the pastor at Alma’s First Presbyterian Church, says she hasn’t directly talked about the issue.

“I have brought up how Jesus welcomed those who most of society turned away,” Pekich-Bundy says.

She says to her, there’s a clear direction for the church: welcoming young refugees. But she’s not sure if Alma is the place to do it.

“Having seen some of the yelling and the anger and the hate, it makes me question whether this would be welcoming for someone for someone who is a person of color. And I would not want to put somebody at risk,” Pekich-Bundy says.

The city commission is scheduled to vote during Tuesday’s 6 p.m. meeting at Alma High School. Converting the nursing home to a shelter requires rezoning. 

The city’s planning commission has recommended against the rezone. The city attorney says he can’t remember the full city commission ever voting to overturn a decision by the planning commission.

But the state civil rights commission has also stepped in. It’s warning the city that denying a rezoning request based on race or national origin is illegal.

The outcome of the vote remains unclear, and some city officials say regardless of the decision, they’re expecting a lawsuit.

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