In New York, Even a Count of Separated Children Proves Elusive

WRAL_Logo.pngBy Liz Robbins and Annie Correal

NEW YORK — On Friday, officials in New York still did not have answers to even the most basic questions about the children who had been separated from their parents at the southern border and relocated 2,000 miles away: How many were there, and where had they been placed?

Both Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio sent letters demanding that information from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. When it was not forthcoming, Cuomo threatened the 10 agencies that had accepted the separated children, and which the state also regulates, to turn over the children’s names or lose their operating certificates.

But because they are bound by their contracts with the federal government not to disclose information about children in their care, the agencies said they could not share it, even with the state.

So faith leaders and local elected officials pieced together the numbers: About 60 children each at Catholic Guardian Services, Lutheran Social Services and Abbott House, all in the Bronx, according to officials who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the information. Another 19 had been at the Westchester children’s residence visited by Cuomo on Thursday. And there were 243 at Cayuga Centers in East Harlem, according to the latest figures from the mayor’s office. Officials seemed to be learning new numbers every few hours, as they tried to account for the 700 children Cuomo spoke of Thursday.

The confusion underscored just how chaotic the situation was, with lawyers frantically scrambling to figure out how to represent the children, and Cayuga, which had the most children, urgently looking for staff and asking for more Spanish-speaking volunteers to serve as foster parents.

De Blasio blamed the Trump administration for the mess. “This was thrown together, this family separation policy, with no preparation for trying to figure out where kids would go that made any sense,” he said on WNYC radio Friday.

The mayor said it made sense to Cayuga officials that children were sent to New York, because there were “not a lot of places near the border that had this ability, as organizations, to provide the social services and provide a setting for these kids, or had enough foster care placements.”

The president ended the policy of separating children from their parents at the border with an executive order Wednesday, but there was not yet any plan in place to reunite them.

While their parents have faced prosecution at the border, the children are entitled to their own hearings. But getting to one is a tangled process that can take days, if not weeks. Immigration court at 26 Federal Plaza meets only several times a month to decide the fate of detained children, and getting cases on the docket is outside the lawyers’ control.

Migration counselors, as well as agency social workers, try to locate the parents first — and at least some of those parents have already been deported. “It’s not the same thing as, we met you today, we saw you today, we represent you; this is a process on a case-by-case basis,” said Anthony Enriquez, legal director of the unaccompanied minors program for Catholic Charities, a nonprofit organization that has been meeting with the children. It has 12 lawyers and a federal contract to work with unaccompanied minors.

Though many other lawyers have volunteered to help without pay, getting them into government-contracted facilities to see children under federal custody “takes a lot of coordination and requires permission,” Enriquez said.

And if the children are unable to make their wishes about their case known — at least one child as young as 9 months has been placed in New York, and some may speak indigenous languages rather than Spanish — Catholic Charities refers them to yet another organization with a federal contract. That group, the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, provides “ad litem” support to children in New York, to advocate for the best interests of the child, but only has two lawyers and one social worker in New York. On Friday, another lawyer was on the way.

“We have received a lot of referrals for very young children for the last couple of months, and we’re handling a lot of these cases,” said Elizabeth Frankel, the associate director of the Young Center.

Even if a child has a private lawyer, the process is not streamlined.

José Xavier Orochena, who is representing three Guatemalan children at Cayuga who were separated from their mother in McAllen, Texas, said he has encountered nothing but red tape. He called Catholic Charities to coordinate his representation. “I’m waiting for a call back,” he said.

“I called 26 Federal Plaza asking what’s their court date,” he said of the children. A lawyer for the government told him the children’s cases were “not even in the state of New York, and there’s nothing we have initiated against them as of today.”

Their mother, meanwhile, awaits her own court date at a detention center in Arizona.

Rep. Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y., of Manhattan, who toured Cayuga’s building Friday — where children were seen wearing homemade masks, apparently to shield their identities — said the chaos was not evident inside. “I think they were very much under control,” he said, “and the social workers and the therapists that we met with seem to be very much under control.”

Mark Levine, a city councilman who also toured the center, said it was “desperate for more staff” and would be organizing a job fair Monday.

Allison Sesso, executive director of the Human Services Council of New York, an umbrella organization whose members include some of the 10 agencies, asked for some patience. “At the end of the day, these nonprofits are trying to be there for the kids,” she said.

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