It was inevitable that immigration policy would seep into Tuesday’s public meeting on the Cherokee Nation Businesses’ proposal to establish a temporary emergency intake facility for unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in the United States.
And it did. Multiple speakers at the Tulsa County Board of Adjustment meeting, where CNB was seeking a zoning change to allow for the facility at Cherokee Industrial Park, argued that the United States should not be facilitating “illegal immigration”; it should be stopping it.
But at the end of the day, members of the board — which is charged with resolving land use issues — cited a lack of information and uneasiness with the proposed site in voting 3-1 to reject the zoning change.
“I am not comfortable turning an industrial district into residential,” board member Don Hutchinson said before voting against the project.
Board member Michael Hicks, who also voted against the proposal, said he would have liked to see CNB provide more information about what it was planning.
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“I think the location doesn’t give me as much concern as the fact that information in the packet is lacking, in my opinion,” Hicks said.
The board’s vote was 3-1. Kelly Dunkerley cast the other “no” vote, and William Tisdale voted in favor of the zoning change.
BOA Chairman David Charney recused himself from the case. He is a property owner in the industrial park.
Chuck Garrett, CEO of CNB, said he was disappointed by the board’s decision.
“There are many children who are in need of compassionate care and humanitarian services,” Garrett said in a prepared statement. “Rest assured, we will immediately begin to work (on) alternative solutions to help meet the vital needs of our government partner.”
The question before the board was whether to approve CNB’s request for a use variance to the zoning code to allow an emergency and protective shelter for unaccompanied minors to be established on property, which is zoned industrial medium.
The proposed site of the facility is a five-building, 873,896-square-foot complex owned by Verizon Business Network Services LLC. The buildings are on 104 acres of tribal land.
The Tulsa World reported on Sunday that the U.S. Department of the Interior recently identified Cherokee Nation Management & Consulting Services — which is wholly owned by CNB — as the lone company that responded to its request for proposals that was capable of setting up such a facility in time for the expected increase in immigrants crossing the border this summer.
Attorney Nathan Cross, representing CNB, told board members the proposed facility could eventually hold 2,000 to 4,000 unaccompanied minors, depending on how it is ultimately laid out.
The unaccompanied minors typically remain in intake facilities 30 to 60 days before they are united with a family member or a sponsor, Cross said.
During that time, CNB would be responsible for feeding, clothing and educating the young people — a task that could require as many as 2,000 workers.
“The facility is meant to be a place that is warm and welcoming for children,” Cross said.
Tulsa County Sheriff Vic Regalado expressed a concern voiced by several of the speakers who opposed the project on Tuesday — a lack of communication by the applicant.
CNB responded in February to the federal government’s request for interested parties to operate the facility, but Regalado said he learned of the proposed project through a recent newspaper article.
“At the end of the day, other than this forum, the public has had no ability in which to talk about whether they support this,” Regalado said. “I think with a decision such as this, the citizens should be afforded that right.”
Before the Board of Adjustment voted, Steven Bilby, president of Cherokee Federal, a division of CNB, told board members that, despite what they had heard from some speakers Tuesday, the unaccompanied minors who would be served at the proposed facility are not illegal immigrants.
“These are not illegals; these are refugees, and they are children,” Bilby said. “And, yes, their circumstances might be different than ours, but they are still children, and they have a place, and they deserve a process.”
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