National News

What’s Happening With the Separated Children in New York?

NEW YORK — The children are on the move again. Months after hundreds of immigrant children were separated from their parents at the southwestern border and sent to New York, some are now being sent back south to rejoin them.

Posted Updated

NEW YORK — The children are on the move again. Months after hundreds of immigrant children were separated from their parents at the southwestern border and sent to New York, some are now being sent back south to rejoin them.

But unlike the balloon-filled reunions that were taking place last week, these reunions are likely to be happening at federal detention centers. It is all part of the federal government’s effort to meet a court-ordered deadline of July 26 for all families to be reunited.

That is what activists and immigration lawyers wanted, but some still saw red flags. “The government’s response to the court order to reunify children is to play a game of musical children,” said Eve Stotland, legal director for The Door, a nonprofit representing a number of migrant children in New York.

And two legal developments Monday added to the uncertainty. The U.S. District Court judge in San Diego, Dana M. Sabraw, who had set the July 26 deadline in a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, ordered a stay of deportations for families who had been reunited. This was to ensure that the government did not comply with the order by hastily deporting families.

In New York, Legal Aid filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court to demand the government give lawyers 48 hours notice before moving their clients, as opposed to the 12 hours mandated by Sabraw.

Q: Where will the children go?

A: As part of the federal plan released Friday, the government said it would be returning 200 children a day to their parents. The parents would be moved to one of eight centers in the Southwest, and the children would be moved there soon after.

Two boys from Guatemala, ages 5 and 12, were scheduled to be on their way — by airplane — to a detention center in Port Isabel, Texas, on Monday to be reunited with their mothers, according to the Legal Aid Society of New York. The lawyers received notice Monday that nine more children it represents in New York would be “discharged” within the next 48 hours, but it was unclear where they would be sent.

“It’s uncertain what these kids are being sent into,” Beth Krause, supervising lawyer for the Immigrant Youth Project at Legal Aid. “What the facility looks like, what services will be available, legal and social, and what rights that will stay with them and what will be stripped.”

Under what is known as the Flores agreement, children cannot be held in detention with their parents for longer than 20 days. They must be held in an accredited child care facility or be released to a sponsor. That was the government’s rationale for separating parents and children in the first place.

But parents can waive their children’s rights not to be detained beyond 20 days. This provision was one that the ACLU and government lawyers agreed upon to expedite reunions.

The children could also be released with their parents who might be required to wear ankle bracelets while their immigration cases are pending.

Q: Wait, Aren’t the Reunions a Good Thing?

A: Yes, but lawyers and activists have some reservations. The children, whom the government designated as unaccompanied minors after separating them from their parents, have been in the custody of one agency, the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Thus, they are entitled to their own immigration hearings.

But if they are reunited with their parents and put into detention together, lawyers said, the children will be transferred to different custody — under the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency — and be considered a family unit.

Lawyers for children in New York said they are deeply concerned that parents will have inadvertently signed away their children’s separate rights in the rush to be reunited. That could be important if, for example, a parent is willing to be deported back to a home country, but the child does not want to go. Krause, the lawyer for one of the Guatemalan boys flown to Texas, said her client, who is 12, wants to see his mother again, but he would not want to be deported with her because, “he is scared to go home; he has a viable asylum claim.”

It is possible that children will still be able to pursue their own claims.

According to Legal Aid’s Gregory Copeland, the ACLU lawsuit did not “adequately protect our clients,” which is why Legal Aid filed its own lawsuit in the Southern District of New York in Manhattan on Monday.

He said the Legal Aid lawsuit also formally asks the government to provide specifics on where the child would be sent and what the government intended to do with the child. Q: Have any reunions taken place in New York?

A: Yes, some. A number of children were reunited with parents arriving from other states last week, to meet a court-ordered deadline for children younger than 5. In addition, at least two other mothers rejoined their children, including Yeni González, who was reunited with her three children — ages 6, 9 and 11 — after being released from Eloy Detention Center and driven to New York by volunteers.

The federal government said last week that it had returned all “eligible” children under 5 to their parents, as Sabraw had mandated. But it turned out that only 57 of 103 across the country were eligible, according to the government.

On Thursday at a City Council hearing, Mario Russell, director of Immigration Services at Catholic Charities, said only 12 of the 24 children younger than 5 in New York City were reunited with their parents. But officials and lawyers estimated Monday that there had now been as many as 20 reunions with children under 5.

Bitta Mostofi, commissioner for Immigrant Affairs in New York, said she was concerned about the children who remain in federal custody, and the city’s lack of information about them. She said the federal government still has not offered any details. “Their stonewalling and total lack of a reunification plan fails to help these children and our local efforts,” she said.

In recent interviews, lawyers said that at least three parents or guardians brought to the New York area to be reunified with children are still being held in an immigrant detention center outside of New York City and have not been reunified; they believe at least two have a child under 5.