“It was a very intense and an emotional experience, and I experienced the heartbreak of meeting the children, some as young as one-year-old.”
Council Member Mark Levine, after touring the Cayuga Center in East Harlem
At first, not even New York City’s elected officials knew that the perilous journeys for 239 migrant children separated from their parents had come to an end, for now, in Manhattan.
But as the story unfolded last week of how the Trump administration’s family separation policy — widely denounced as a moral and human rights catastrophe by politicians, religious leaders and former first ladies from across the political spectrum — had resulted in an estimated 2,300 children shipped to far-flung cities around the country, New Yorkers took notice. And when news broke that approximately 700 of those children were believed to be in New York State, with over a quarter of them in New York City alone, many City leaders and everyday citizens first expressed outrage — and then quickly took action. “I have to say how incredibly proud I am of the way New Yorkers have supported these kids,” says City Council Member Mark Levine, who represents Northern Manhattan.
Under pressure, President Trump signed an executive order on June 20 ending his administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents who were detained at the southern border. But New York City officials continue to push back against the lack of Federal transparency about the reunification process and demand the exact whereabouts of the children already separated from their parents. And that begins with the young people shipped hundreds of miles now sharing the same shores as Lady Liberty.
On June 22, Levine, along with Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and other elected officials, toured the Cayuga Center in East Harlem, where some of the migrant children are being held, as first reported by NY1.
“It was a very intense and an emotional experience, and I experienced the heartbreak of meeting the children, some as young as one-year-old,” says Levine. “It was also a tremendous relief to see the quality of care [Cayuga Center] is providing [them]. That’s not to minimize the trauma these kids have gone through.”
After Levine’s office put out a call for donations last week, they were flooded with baby formula, diapers, clothing and books, sometimes brought in by young children themselves to help those in need. Over 1,200 volunteers signed up with the office online, including attorneys offering pro bono services and doctors and dentists offering their expertise to provide check-ups for the migrant children.
“It is better that the children are here in a state that is willing and able to help them rather than elsewhere,” said Council Member Ben Kallos, who represents the Upper East Side. “I hope to be able to work with the City and the State to improve the lives of these children and reunite them with their families, and if even possible help put them on a path toward legal status here in the U.S.”
SHOW OF SUPPORT
Religious leaders and faith-based groups have been leading the charge to help the migrant children. In some cases, they have helped undocumented immigrants long before the child separation policy was enacted.
“This is a moral crisis. It’s barbarism. So how do we work together?” says the Rev. Schuyler Vogel, senior minister at the Fourth Universalist Society on Central Park West.
Since last year, Vogel’s congregation has provided sanctuary for Aura Hernandez, an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant who is facing deportation. She currently lives in the church with her young daughter, and her 10-year-old son comes to visit her on weekends. Hernandez is one of three undocumented immigrants publically taking sanctuary in New York’s houses of worship. There are more sanctuary cases that are not public, says Vogel, and it’s a reminder that families are at risk of being separated right here in our own city.
“It [sanctuary] is all part of the same battle, to ensure that human dignity is respected and that families are staying together,’ says Vogel. “We have the privilege of knowing these undocumented people as our friends, as our neighbors. They’re not other to us. We see them as good people, and good Americans.”
Prior to the executive order, an interfaith delegation of 40 religious leaders including Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Executive Director of T’ruah and Monsignor Kevin Sullivan, Executive Director of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, visited the border to demand that the Trump administration end the policy of separating families.
“Jewish history, unfortunately has taught us too well the pain of being separated from one’s family,” said Jacobs. “We have also learned the tragedy that happens when the U.S. closes its borders to those fleeing danger.”
Social media has also been instrumental in turning public outcry into direct action. Lawyer Moms for America, a Facebook group that sprung up recently in response to the family separation policy, is part of a coalition organizing a Day of Action on June 29. They plan to hand-deliver a letter to every Senator and U.S. Representative demanding immediate reunification of the migrant children with their families, and legislation that ends family separation and family detention.
“We feel strongly that we’re sworn to defend the constitution, and we can no longer stand by as grave damage is being done to children coming to seek safety in our country,” says Morghan Richardson, a partner in family law at Davidoff Hutcher & Citron LLP, and a leader of the New York chapter of Lawyer Moms of America.
“I think that sits particularly badly with us because we have our own children, and we feel so passionately about this country that we became attorneys and bound to uphold the law,” she adds.
One sentiment was shared across the board: this is not who we are, as Americans, and especially as New Yorkers.
“It’s so important that there was such an outcry around the separation of families, because it’s so contrary to what this country stands for and in its best form, is categorically against,” says Vogel.
On June 30th, a massive rally and march led by the New York Immigration Coalition and its partner organizations is expected to draw tens of thousands of New Yorkers. The NYIC has long been at the helm of immigration issues in New York and remains instrumental in mobilizing resources and volunteer opportunities.
As for now, Levine says that many organizations are flooded with donations, and the most pressing need is for Spanish-speaking foster families. The Cayuga Center is also seeking professional child care workers. In spite of all the resources provided, the migrant children are still lacking the thing they need most: “They need to be reunited with their families.”