National News

16 and Alone, Inside a Center for Separated Children in New York

Posted June 21, 2018 10:53 p.m. EDT

It was just three weeks ago that the 16-year-old was detained by immigration agents in Texas after traveling with his father to the United States. The father was deported back to Guatemala. The child was sent to New York.

Today, he sits in a children’s residence, one of an estimated 700 young people who have been placed with child care agencies in New York since President Donald Trump announced his zero tolerance policy of separating children from family members when they are apprehended at the southern border.

Amid a rising outcry over the practice, and even as the president signed an executive order ending it, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo toured one of the agency campuses with a New York Times reporter for a rare glimpse of these children’s lives. Because the agency that runs the residence receives federal funding it fears could be imperiled by speaking to the press, it offered the tour on the condition that its name, exact location and the names of the children interviewed not be disclosed.

Cuomo said he wanted to visit the residence to make sure the children there were being well cared for, and he excoriated the Trump administration for not informing him of the presence of the separated children in New York earlier. “They’re placing children in state-certified facilities, state-regulated facilities, and not even communicating with us,” he said.

The separated children are only the most visible part of a migration that has been taking place quietly since 2014, when a surge in the number of “unaccompanied minors” — children arriving at the border without parents — garnered attention. Ten state welfare agencies have contracts to provide medical, educational and other support services while providing temporary housing for the children. Many unaccompanied minors have been subsequently placed with relatives or guardians living in the United States.

But the separated children may not have those connections, and how they will be reunited with their parents remains unclear. Many of them are under 12, known as “tender age,” and they now make up about 20 percent of the 11,801 unaccompanied minors in the custody of the government, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

In New York, there were hints of the coming crisis at the beginning of May, for those who knew where to look. At one child care agency, the number of unaccompanied minor children placed by the federal government swelled to 15 that month, from just three the month before.

Megan Newman, who lives near a child welfare agency in East Harlem, said she has seen children coming and going from the building for months. And recently, she noticed something else.

“More little ones,” she said in a telephone interview. “The little minis. I haven’t seen babies, per se. But yeah, a lot of little ones. It’s a steady parade.”

About a month ago, a 9-year-old boy from Honduras landed with the same foster care agency, Cayuga Centers, after traveling by bus from Texas, where he and his mother had been apprehended. On June 8, a family friend contacted the office of Mayor Bill de Blasio, asking for legal advice.

From that call, it would be nearly two weeks before the extent of the number of children being sent to New York became clear.

“It’s inhumane and unsustainable,” Cuomo said Thursday, of taking children from their parents at the border. “This was either a deliberate strategy to create chaos or one of the greatest government blunders in history.”

Both Cuomo and de Blasio expressed shock at the number of children placed in New York, and outrage at the federal government’s lack of transparency. But there is no requirement that federal officials inform the city or state about how many children it is sending.

Eric Ferrero, the deputy commissioner for the city’s Administration for Children’s Services, said that his office had been asking federal authorities for more than a week about children arriving from the border.

“Do they have an obligation to tell you, ‘We’ve got six kids coming into La Guardia tonight’? No, that’s not how it typically works,” he said. “But we would expect the federal government to answer our questions about how many kids they have in New York City who have been separated from their parents and are experiencing trauma. These are kids that have presumably some really complicated needs that we want to make sure we’re helping to meet.”

The consulates for the children’s home countries also said they weren’t getting information from the government. José Vicente Chinchilla, consul general of El Salvador, said there was no indication until this week that children separated from their families had been sent to New York, let alone how many.

He relies on a monthly report from the federal government of the number, names and ages of unaccompanied minors in his jurisdiction — New York and Pennsylvania — and according to the May report there had been no significant increase.

Asked how many separated Salvadoran children were in New York, he said, “To be honest, I don’t have a number,” noting on Thursday that neither the federal authorities nor the local welfare agencies had responded to requests for information. The campus Cuomo visited sits in an almost serene suburban locale and is home to about 15 of the separated children, along with other unaccompanied minors. The hallways and classrooms were clean. Dozens of children played soccer on well-used fields, while a limp American flag sat on a hillside above several of the dormitories.

Inside a dorm set aside for teenage girls, the walls were spare, dotted with snapshots of birthday parties and painted with inspirational maxims; the doors lock from inside and out. But there were also signs of longing for home and a better life, including a series of cutout paper butterflies glued to a wall with messages of the children’s hopes. “I want to be someone in life to be able to help all the people who need it,” said one, in Spanish. “I want to learn to become a teacher,” said another.

An official at the residence said many of the children had managed to speak to their parents, and several of the separated children had been placed with family. For others, the wait continues. “Because they are older than the tender-age children, they are faring much better, but still it’s very traumatic, they’ve been traumatized by the separation,” the official said. “They have trouble sleeping, sometimes they’re anxious, depressed, crying, primarily.”

One of those hoping to stay in the United States was the 16-year-old from Guatemala — a diminutive, talkative teenager who said he had only finished schooling through fifth grade. He said he had not expected his father to be sent back, and suddenly found himself alone in New York. He had spoken with his father several times and said he had a cousin in Houston, where he would like to go live, though it is not clear if that will happen.

Despite being taken away from his father, he expressed optimism. “It is a happy place here,” he said, holding a soccer ball firmly in his grasp while talking to the governor. “It’s not a sad place, it’s a happy place.”