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Cuomo Jumps to the Front Line in Battle Over Separated Children

ALBANY, N.Y. — The week began with a feint from Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

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Cuomo Jumps to the Front Line in Battle Over Separated Children
Jesse McKinley
, New York Times

ALBANY, N.Y. — The week began with a feint from Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

His office released a statement Monday saying that New York would not deploy its National Guard to the nation’s southern border, saying the state would not be a part of “this inhumane treatment of immigrant families.” Only later, however, did his office concede that the federal government had never asked to send the New York National Guard.

“Pre-emptive,” as one aide described it.

But as the week progressed, Cuomo’s gestures gained gravitas, as it became clearer that New York — unbeknown to the governor and other local public officials — was being sent hundreds of the children separated from their parents at the border.

On Tuesday, his administration announced its intention to sue the federal government over the border policy. On Wednesday, as the Legislature left the Capitol without addressing some key legislation, leaving it to expire with little more than a shrug from the governor, Cuomo spent the day in Albany making a series of appearances on cable news shows and writing an op-ed for The New York Times.

On Thursday, he took a helicopter to a suburban facility that housed about 15 of the separated children, and held a lengthy news conference where he spoke angrily about the federal government sending hundreds of other children to New York with no notice or personal information.

“They are in my state,” Cuomo said. “They are my legal charge.”

Although the governor’s initial gesture may have originally seemed to some to have been driven by political opportunism, Cuomo, a second-term Democrat seeking re-election in the fall, now finds himself on more powerful footing, both from a political and policy perspective.

The push against President Donald Trump’s policy has dovetailed nicely for Cuomo’s recent embrace of broader national themes, evidenced by his increasingly vocal attacks on Washington’s and New York’s congressional Republicans. The governor has been mentioned as a possible presidential candidate in 2020, although he denies those ambitions.

Advocating for the separated children also gives Cuomo, a combative and sometimes savage political veteran, a chance to inspire sympathy, which is not something he always evokes.

“Forget everything else, forget the politics and the garbage and the lunacy of this administration,” Cuomo said Friday on MSNBC. “Help the children at least.”

On Friday, the governor released a letter sent to Alex Azar, the secretary of Health and Human Services, asking for information on the 345 separated children the state has managed to count thus far.

In the letter, the governor underscored “the deeply traumatic effects and life-altering consequences of separating children from their parents,” and outlined the state’s duties to “ensure appropriate services are being provided.”

A similar plea on the governor’s campaign website, and linked to a page where people can donate to Cuomo’s re-election effort, drew criticism from his Republican opponent, Marcus Molinaro, who called such a pitch “despicable.”

“It’s rank hypocrisy to suggest compassion while fundraising on these stories,” Molinaro said Friday.

The Cuomo campaign said the short video was not meant to be a solicitation, but a plea for signatures for an online petition, and argued that Molinaro’s own website highlighted social issues like the opioid crisis on pages that also offered opportunities to donate.

Abbey Fashouer, a spokeswoman for Cuomo’s campaign, said that Molinaro “and the GOP have been working to advance Trump’s hateful, divisive agenda since day one,” while Cuomo has worked for immigrants and their children.

To be sure, Cuomo’s efforts on behalf of the migrant children have earned praise from advocates, who have been equally outspoken about the president’s “zero tolerance” policy of separating children, which he revoked amid public outcry earlier this week.

“The fact that the governor is so active on this is a good sign,” said Steve Choi, the executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition. “We need our elected officials to push back on this.”

Choi added that the governor would need to continue to be engaged, as many of the children could be released to family into communities, particularly in Long Island, which might not have the resources to provide the mental health and legal services they need. Moreover, the governor could also continue to “use the bully pulpit” to lobby for the child care facilities that are currently housing the children.

“They are part of the solution,” Choi said. “The governor can really take a stand and make sure the providers are protected and supported, and not mistakenly targeted.”

It was at one such a facility that the governor traveled with a reporter Thursday, chatting amiably with several teenagers — through translators — who had been separated from their parents at the border. And soon after, he brought their stories — and once again, his critiques of the policy — to a wider audience through news releases and television appearances.

“There’s a line and it’s called basic decency and basic humanity,” he said during an interview on NY1 on Friday. “And they have stepped over that line.”

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