National News

First Step to Helping Children Sent to New York: Find Them

Posted June 21, 2018 2:05 p.m. EDT
Updated June 21, 2018 2:07 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — As reports came in of hundreds of children sent quietly to New York after being separated from their families at the southern border, consular officials from Central American countries scrambled to help.

Overnight, their jobs had changed from processing passports and visas from their offices in Midtown Manhattan and on Park Avenue to providing emergency humanitarian aid to children taken from their parents under a Trump administration policy.

But the first step was finding them.

That process was thrown into more disarray on Wednesday when President Donald Trump signed an executive order ending the policy that separated children from their parents. It appeared that children were continuing to arrive in New York as late as Wednesday night.

Consular offices are often involved in cases of unaccompanied migrant youth, especially when children want to return to their countries voluntarily. But this situation was “atypical,” according to José Vicente Chinchilla, the consul general of El Salvador, because they did not even know children separated from their families were coming to New York, let alone how many.

“To be honest, I don’t have a number,” he said Wednesday, noting that the federal authorities had not responded to requests for information. “For the moment,” Chinchilla said, “there has been no contact.”

The federal agency that cares for unaccompanied minors — the Office of Refugee Resettlement — had not informed consular officials in New York of any shift in policy before news broke on Wednesday that more than 300 children had been sent to New York.

The mayor’s office also had been kept in the dark. “We have asked directly for an estimation of children who have been separated in the city; we have not received a response,” said Bitta Mostofi, commissioner of Immigrant Affairs for New York. “Kids are being sent across the country and this has not been part of what they have publicly disclosed,” she said.

She said the mayor’s office was deeply troubled by the lack of transparency from the federal government.

The resettlement agency also could not provide the number of children separated from their parents who have been sent to New York.

“It is still very early and we are awaiting further guidance on the matter,” said Brian Marriott, a senior director of communications at the federal Administration for Children and Families. He said the agency’s focus is on continuing to provide quality services and care to the minors.

By Thursday, consular officials and others were shifting into crisis mode, beginning to search for children as young as 9 months old who did not appear to have been carefully tracked by the federal authorities.

The consul of Honduras, Lídice González, had sent a list of questions on Wednesday to a local representative of the resettlement agency: “Where are they? In what centers? What are their names? How old are they?” González said. “I sent her an email and marked it ‘urgent.'”

“She said she was visiting the shelters,” she said of the representative, whom she did not name. González said she had been promised a list.

The majority of children sent to New York are believed to have been taken at the border after traveling north with their relatives from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, where countless families have fled poverty and gang violence.

On Wednesday, city officials announced that children had been sent to New York over the past two months and were placed with social service agencies that have contracts with the federal government.

City officials first learned that children were being sent to New York after a relative of a Honduran child asked a friend to contact Mayor Bill de Blasio. At first, it seemed he was one of dozens. Speaking on Wednesday afternoon outside Cayuga Centers in Harlem, de Blasio said 350 children had passed through the center; 239 of them were still in Cayuga’s care. (The agency places children in temporary foster care; it is not a residential facility.)

On Thursday, consular officials switched gears. Chinchilla and his staff were contacting the social service agencies to try to find the children.

“We will go talk to them,” he said. “We will be looking at providing legal representation, but also at their health and how they’re doing psychologically.”

And then they would start searching for their families. His office was contacting government offices stretching back to San Salvador, the capital, in search of relatives who may have reported a separated child.

They had not received any calls, but expected to be flooded.