The Syosset-based nonprofit MercyFirst is housing 10 migrant children who were separated from their families as part of the Trump Administration’s zero-tolerance immigration policy. On Monday, U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi, who recently visited the U.S.-Mexico border, and Nassau County Executive Laura Curran toured the grounds of the childcare center.
The group consists of a 4-year-old, a 5-year-old, a 6-year-old, two 7-year-olds, a 9-year-old, an 11-year-old, two 14-year-olds and a 17-year-old. The children hail from Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Brazil. Two were brought to the facility as recently as last weekend, one on Friday and the other in the early hours of Monday morning.
Suozzi and Curran said they saw the children socializing in a classroom and playing basketball in the center’s gym. The elected leaders offered brief greetings in what Suozzi described as “rudimentary” Spanish, but they were advised by staff to keep communication to a minimum.
“They seem as positive as they can be in the situation that they are in,” Suozzi said. “Our concern is the reunification of these children with their families.” The congressman said that some of the migrants have been with MercyFirst since early May, and eight of them have been in contact with their parents.
“We want to do everything we can to help this organization because they’re doing God’s work,” Curran said. “Even though we’re 3,000 miles from the border, this issue is happening here, and we want the people to know their government is here to help and protect them.”
She said she was also concerned about the psychological toll the children will face after being separated from their families and displaced from familiar surroundings. “That kind of long-term damage is hard to overcome,” Curran said.
Susan Gottehrer, director of the Nassau County chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, trains immigrant families in the county to prepare for separations if they are detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. She said the anxiety and trauma the children are exhibiting is not new.
“If Laura Curran is that concerned about psychological trauma to children,” Gottehrer said, “it is our hope that she will understand the trauma going on in Nassau County every day because of Nassau’s cooperation with ICE.”
Last Saturday, Suozzi traveled with a bipartisan delegation to El Paso, Texas, to meet with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officials and tour the Tornillo Detention Facility. There, he saw children separated from their parents after they had tried to cross the border into the U.S.
“This issue has been made into an emergency because of a poor policy,” Suozzi said. “When you have piecemeal approaches on immigration, you end up with bad results.”
The congressman spoke of the political divisiveness in Washington surrounding immigrant family separation and the mass incarceration of children on American soil. “Everybody is so angry and so divided that we’re not talking about solutions and we’re not getting down to work,” Suozzi said. “I’m a strong believer in border security, but we need to treat people with respect and dignity.”
On June 20, President Trump signed an executive order meant to end family separations at the border by detaining parents and children together, but rescinding the practice comes with “tremendous” legal implications, said Patrick Young, an attorney with the Central American Refugee Center in Hempstead.
Young said that, despite Trump’s executive order, four-fifths of migrant children continue to be separated from their families. “It’s wrong to say the policy is directed against illegal immigrants since the order ends the separation of families in exchange for restricting chain migration,” he said. Chain migration is when one family member enters the U.S. and then sends for others. It is legal, Young noted.
He added that Trump and Republicans are using migrant children, whether they are refugees or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival recipients, as bargaining chips in a larger political play to push for the president’s border-security agenda, including his plan to construct a border wall. DACA recipients were brought to the U.S. by their parents as children.
“It’s important the children be kept in the least restrictive, least prison-like facilities, unlike what we’ve been seeing,” Young said, “but the mass incarceration and separation all come against the background of a larger attack on immigrants.”