New York became a focal point in the controversy over migrant children separated from their parents on Wednesday after local officials revealed that more than 200 of those children have been transferred to facilities in the state. Reports that migrant children were still arriving on flights from Texas drew hundreds to an overnight protest at La Guardia airport that was reminiscent of the demonstrations against President Trump’s travel ban.
Though Trump signed an executive order on Wednesday afternoon saying families apprehended at the border must be detained together while the adults await prosecution under his “zero tolerance policy,” federal officials said they would make no special effort to reunite the 2,300 children who have already been taken from their families. (Later, officials at the Department of Health and Human Services walked that back slightly, saying they are awaiting further guidance).
In recent days journalists have been trying to determine what’s become of the children transferred to New York after being separated from their families. After receiving a tip that some of the children were being sent to Cayuga Centers, a foster agency in East Harlem, NY1 obtained video of a group of five girls being escorted to the facility at 12:45 a.m. on Wednesday. About an hour later, they left after being walked to a vehicle with coverings over their heads.
Hours later, Governor Cuomo confirmed that the girls had been separated from their parents, and children in their situation are being kept in at least ten facilities across the state. He said the federal government has barred the state from providing additional medical or mental-health services for the children. “These children shouldn’t be in facilities in New York or anywhere else in the first place,” he said in a New York Times op-ed. “They should be with their parents.”
Mayor de Blasio held a press conference after visiting the East Harlem facility, saying the federal government would not tell city or state officials exactly how many children had been sent to the region, or where they were being housed. He said 350 separated children had passed through Cayuga Centers, which places children in temporary foster care and runs day programs; 239 were currently in the agency’s care.
“How is it possible that none of us knew that there were 239 kids right here in our own city?” he asked. “How is the federal government holding back that information from the people of this city and holding back the help these kids could need?”
WNYC reported that Cayuga is one of 11 facilities in the New York City area that have taxpayer-funded contracts to accept “unaccompanied alien minors” and place them in group homes or with foster families. The figures below reflect their contracts for the current fiscal year:
Abbott House (Westchester County) — $2.5 million
Catholic Guardian Services (New York City) — $7.5 million
Cayuga Home for Children (New York City) — $40 million
Center for Family Services (Camden, NJ) — $4 million
Jewish Child Care Association (New York City) — $2 million
Rising Ground (Westchester) — $14.3 million
Lincoln Hall (Westchester) — $16.4 million
Lutheran Social Services (New York City) — $5 million
Mercy First (Long Island) — $5.7 million
Children’s Home of Kingston (Ulster County) — $2.1 million
Children’s Village (Westchester) — $6.9 million
Immigration and Customs Enforcement can only hold unaccompanied children for 72 hours before they must be transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement. The child is then placed in a foster group that contracts with the federal government. Since few beds are available in facilities near the border, the children may be sent to foster groups thousands of miles away from where their parents are detained.
“In theory, you would think that the government would be sending kids to New York who might have a sponsor in the northeast, but that’s not always how it works,” a source told Gothamist. “There doesn’t seem to be a method for this. We get a phone call from ORR and they say, ‘Hey, we’re arriving at JFK. We have three kids with us.’”
Anthony Enriquez, the director of the unaccompanied minors program for Catholic Charities, told the Times that most of the children arriving from the border are under the age of 10, and they don’t know how to locate their parents.
“There is no system whatsoever to track these family separations, no efforts systematically to reunite these families,” Enriquez said. “There is no supervisor, there is no database saying, ‘child here, parent there,’ so they can come back together.”
On Wednesday night, the Times posted video of seven boys carrying government-labeled belongings arriving at La Guardia on an American Airlines flight from Dallas–Fort Worth International Airport. Police escorted them to a van with tinted windows.
Earlier in the day, the airline issued a statement asking the federal government to stop using their flights to transport children taken from their parents, saying they have “no desire to be associated with separating families, or worse, to profit from it.” A spokesman for the airline told the New York Times that the seven boys were apprehended at the border without their parents, but flight attendants seemed to doubt that:
An American Airlines spokesman, Ross Feinstein, said in an interview that it had delayed the flight from Dallas-Fort Worth by 33 minutes until it got reassurances from government officials that these teenagers were not among those who had been separated from their parents. But a cluster of flight attendants who had been on board stood nearby after the children deplaned, visibly distraught. “They lied to us,” one flight attendant said.
Immigration advocates posted photos and videos of other groups of children who appeared to be unaccompanied minors arriving at La Guardia. Cristina Jimenez of United We Dream told the New York Post that she saw several children arrive around 9:30 p.m. “I saw a few of them coming out with plastic bags,” said Jimenez. “What I saw just broke my heart. They looked terrified.”
Calls went out on social media for people to come to the airport to witness the children’s transfer, and protest the Trump administration’s policies toward families apprehended at the border. Stosh Cotler, one of the rally’s organizers, told the Post that a person on a flight with the immigrant children tipped her off about their arrival. “We want to let them know that there are thousands of people who see them, who love them and who will fight for them,” Cotler said.
Hundreds of people showed up, transferring from terminal to terminal as they tried to anticipate which flights might be carrying immigrant children.
There was a still a sizable crowd when gates closed early on Thursday morning, and activists said they intend to continue drawing attention to the plight of children taken from their families.