By Lamia Choudhury and Andrea Keckley
The last of the 17 immigrant children being sheltered at the nonprofit human services agency Mercy First, who, unbeknownst to the agency’s staff, were separated from their parents at the southern U.S. border, have left the facility.
These children were among the over 2,000 separated from their parents under the Trump Administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy. Some of those sheltered at Mercy First had been there since as early as this past April. The Syosset-based Catholic organization has a contract with the Office of Refugee Resettlement to house unaccompanied minors who come here from other countries looking to stay with a parent or relative who is already in the United States. The staff thought this was the case with these 17 children until the kids themselves explained that they were forcibly separated from their parents, Gerard McCaffery, president of Mercy First, said.
“It’s not illegal to seek asylum, but this administration is looking to discourage it,” McCaffery said.
Many of the children at Mercy First, some as young as four years of age, had been fleeing gang violence and corruption in their home countries, and tried to seek asylum in the United States.
The policy that brought these children to Syosset came about in April when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the U.S. would be cracking down on illegal immigration at the southern border by separating children from their parents, rather than keeping them together. A federal judge later ordered that children five and under be reunited with their families by Jun. 10 and children older than five by Jun. 26. President Donald Trump signed an executive order that sought to end the family separation on Jun. 20.
The U.S. government still has nearly 140 children in custody.
“It’s very difficult to find out where some of these kids live,” McCaffery said. “When you ask a four year old where they live, they’ll say ‘with my parents.’ In a country like Honduras, not everyone has a cell phone and not everyone lives on a road with a name. Some of these remote villages are really difficult to find.”
Mercy First falls into the jurisdiction of Congressman Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), who toured the facility back in June.
“The most recent separation of children from their families is un-American,” Suozzi said. “We need a comprehensive bipartisan fix and we need it now before more suffering is visited on children, families and quite frankly the US Border Patrol and other officials tasked with trying to solve this problem under a broken system.”
Immigration is a complex political topic on Long Island, where immigrants (both documented and undocumented) make up about 16 percent of the population, according a report released by the Fiscal Policy Institute’s Immigration Research Initiative that was released in 2011 and revised in 2012.
“Immigrant advocates on Long Island have often been shut out of forums that contribute to fear mongering against our communities,” Irma Solis, director of the Suffolk Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said. “Immigrant communities must be involved in the conversation and consulted on issues impacting their communities.”
Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) met with Trump at the White House to discuss family separation and other immigration policies on Jun. 20, shortly after the president signed the executive order intended to detain parents and children together.
“It’s not good policy to separate children at our border from their parents and release them into the United States as UACs [unaccompanied alien child],” Zeldin stated. “It’s also not good policy to immediately release families who enter our country illegally into our communities.”
Zeldin, who was endorsed by President Trump in a tweet Sept. 26, is running for re-election in New York’s 1st District against Democratic candidate Perry Gershon.
“Our path forward on immigration reform must focus on keeping families together, being tough on security, and implementing policies that grow our economy and create jobs,” Gershon said. “We need a tough but fair path to earned citizenship for those who work hard and play by the rules. Most importantly, we must remember immigrants are a vibrant part of our communities.”
Although many of these Central American families came to the Southern border to escape violence in their home countries, most went back because they felt it was the only chance they had to be reunited with their children, McCaffery said.
“This policy is called ‘catch and release’ which isn’t exactly humane,” McCaffery said.