Even more than some other Western Massachusetts communities, Chicopee is a city of immigrants, a city where a large influx of Poles—who are still coming—became layered over French Canadian and Irish populations. Once a city with a strong, diverse range of industries—American’s first gas-poweed car, the Duryea, was producted here—Chicopee has lost much of its old manufacturing base. Still, the city soldiers on, proud that it didn’t have go to into receivership like its larger neighbor, Springfield, and hoping that it will turn a corner into growth.
Helping out on the sustainability side, meanwhile, is an annual $225 million pumped into the local economy by Westover Air Force Base, a base that’s played a role in nearly every war or rescue operation in memory, including relief missions to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and to Houston after Hurricane Rita.
Now Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, a staunch ally of President Barack Obama, has offered up Westover to the Obama administration as a possible four-month holding place for up to 1,000 of the more than 47,000 immigrant children who have created a growing humanitarian crisis by entering the U.S. through the southwestern border (an alternative holding place is the Camp Edwards military reservation on Cape Cod).
So how does a small city of 55,000—a working city—a very religious (65 percent, mostly Catholic) city—react to the possible influx of 1,000 children ages three through 17 at the local air base, children who will be housed, fed and “educated” on the base by the federal government, not the city?
Compassion is never far from the reaction here, but the reaction is not simple. And it has more than one level. Westover has no extra housing—it has barely enough to accommodate the reservists who show up one weekend a month—so there are facilities issues as well as issues in principle.
Eileen Drumm is president of the Greater Chicopee Chamber of Commerce. Drumm is fully aware that city residents don’t see the possible descent of 1,000 Latin American children on Westover as something remote from them because it would all happen on the base, but she is leading the chamber in sticking to a facts-first approach.
“My feeling is, we’ve got to see how this all shakes out,” she told the Advocate. “There are things I don’t know about the feasibility of this because of the base itself. My understanding is that there isn’t a lot of spare housing there. And there are security and safety issues with a working base, with reservists housed on the weekends, with planes flying in and out.”
Westover public affairs spokesman Bill Pope confirmed that the base has no extra housing. “We don’t even have enough to house the reservists here on base,” he said, explaining that during the one weekend a month when the reservists meet at the base, “some of them have to go downtown.”
And the base doesn’t have eating facilities for 1,000 children, either, said Pope. “We don’t have the old chow hall,” he explained. “We work out of the Westover Consolidated Club. We have reservists who come in and do the cooking for the rest of the reservists.” The Club, he said, holds about 80 or 100 at a sitting.
If the government wanted to billet hundreds of children at Westover, it would have to bring in housing of its own, said Pope, and that might likely go in a camping area of approximately 10 square acres located off the end of the long runway—an area now used for training. After Hurricane Sandy, he said, generators and water purifying equipment were stored there. “That’s where they could do it if it [the placement of the children at Westover] came to pass,” he said.
Citing the Pope’s emphasis on the plight of the children, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston, has promised that the Catholic Church in Massachusetts will support the children. In Chicopee, the presence of the Church is most imposingly felt at the brownstone church of St. Stanislaus on Front Street, a church given the designation of minor basilica by Polish Pope John Paul II.
St. Stan’s is between pastors at the moment, but Deacon William Brown told the Advocate, “Of course, our diocese will respond [to the presence of the children] with whatever counseling and aid we can. But as a parish we have no comment at the point, since nothing has been decided.”
Mayor Richard Kos—a Republican, be it noted, since the larger issue of immigration reform trails heavy partisan fringes—in public statements has expressed himself coolly on the issue of the children’s possible arrival in town. Westover, said the mayor, “is an operational air field without the logistics to house children and maintain its security without impacting its operations.” But like the prudent lawyer and politico that he is, he invited the governor to come to town to discuss the subject. In a move that didn’t play well either in City Hall or on the street, the governor declined. But at press time, Kos was working to arrange a meeting with the governor’s secretary of health and human services, John Polanowicz.
Neither the children nor the perennially unresolved issue of immigration is easy to fit into a scheme of projected responses based on political patterns in Chicopee, because politics here can be paradoxical. In 2010, for example, Chicopee voters went 8,343 for Scott Brown for U.S. Senator rather than Martha Coakley (7,046,) and in the last presidential election they went for Romney rather than Obama by 54 to 44 percent. Yet in 2008 they voted resoundingly for Obama (61 percent) rather than McCain (36 percent), and in 2000 they favored Gore (58 percent) over Bush (35 percent).
So what if 1,000 children, the youngest barely old enough to be out of diapers, were flown in to be maintained at Westover for four months? Outside City Hall, on the streets where businesses waited for customers on a slow weekday afternoon, two passionate opposing voices split the issue into its component parts and pretty much said it all.
“To turn them away is against everything America is built on,” said Jessica Pysz, office manager at Herbarium, an organic herb and supplement store. “Give them sanctuary. Give them asylum! What are we going to do, send them back to the countries we helped destroy with drug cartels and wars? They’re children, for goodness’ sake! If there is a God and He’s watching, we’re being tested and we’re failing miserably. I’m not proud to be an American when a loud minority of my countrymen are screaming at frightened children.”
But Maria Stafinski, owner of Universal Travel, says, not that the nation and the city shouldn’t accommodate the children, but that there simply aren’t the resources to do it in this phase of the economy.
“We already are jam-packed with taxes and fees. My husband was laid off and just went back to work,” Stafinski said tearfully. “My son was just laid off. If my husband is laid off again, we don’t have insurance, and I have medical conditions. They both work at Savage Arms. Everybody’s downsizing.
“These children—I understand and I’m sorry, but we can’t afford it. Most people who work cannot survive. The U.S.A. is so far down from what it was in the glory days in 1962, when I came,” said Stafinski, who in the 1970s was an administrative assistant in the city government of New York. Reminded that the government would be paying the children’s expenses, she exclaimed, “The government is who? Where are they getting their money from? Our taxes.”•
Update: On August 5, Massachusetts state officials learned that accommodation for the immigrant children at Westover Air Force Base or Camp Edwards will not be needed at this time, though the situation, according to the Obama administration, is “still fluid.” “The number of unaccompanied children apprehended and in Customs and Border Protection custody has fallen, while the number of children HHS is releasing to appropriate sponsors as their immigration cases proceed has increased,” the federal department of Housing and Human Services wrote Gov. Deval Patrick. “HHS has also proactively expanded capacity to care for children in standard shelters, which are significantly less costly than temporary shelters. “As a result of this progress, HHS is no longer seeking facilities for temporary shelters for unaccompanied children at this time.”