On Saturday afternoon, Rev. Al Sharpton, Public Advocate Tish James and a wide range of New York City politicians gathered in front of the Cayuga Center in East Harlem to show their support for the 239 immigrant children who were separated from their parents at the border held inside.
“People in New York did not know that some of those babies were right here in East Harlem,” Sharpton told the crowd.
It was one of a long line of vigils held in front of the foster care home that is now known to house children who were separated from their parents at the border. Over the past week, multiple news conferences have been held, and protesters have marched outside the center to show their anger at the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy.
However, these tactics and others may have traumatized the children whom the protestors aim to help, lawyers who represent the children say. The “well-meaning” protests are also making it more difficult for these lawyers to do their jobs.
Two months ago, the Trump administration began the “zero-tolerance” policy, which meant that every migrant crossing the Southwestern border at an unofficial entry point will be criminally prosecuted for illegal entry. When parents enter criminal prosecution, children are separated from them. More than 2,000 children have been separated due to this policy, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
This past week, the story spread from the border to New York state. Protesters have been marching against family separation for some time but a week ago, Newsday reported that eight children who were separated from their families were being held at MercyFirst, a foster care agency that contracts with the federal government to house unaccompanied minors.
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo would later reveal that there were even more children in the state who had been separated from their families. The media storm that followed this culminated in NY1 releasing footage of what appeared to be children who had been separated from their families being taken into the Cayuga center in East Harlem in the middle of the night.
New Yorkers responded with outrage that these children had been brought to the state and protested outside of the foster care agencies where children are believed to be held, and at airports where children are believed to have been brought.
Lawyers who represent these children told Documented that, while they appreciate the intention, these protests often have a negative impact on the children and their ability to help them.
“We’ve seen difficulties in speaking to our clients because the shelter now has [New York Police Department] presence so appointments have to be canceled because there are protesters,” said Anthony Enriquez, director of the unaccompanied minors program at Catholic Charities Community Services.
The added NYPD presence has also traumatized the children, Enriquez said. “We have worked with children who said, ‘I saw NYPD or a police officer outside. … Is that immigration? Are they going to come for me?’”
Beth Krause, supervising attorney at Legal Aid’s Immigrant Youth Project, which is representing children who were brought here, explained that police presence could be confusing or scary given the children’s experience with law enforcement.
“We’re talking about kids that are coming from a different culture. Many of whom have been mistreated, or subjected to violence by authority figures like police,” Krause said.
Krause, Enriquez and other lawyers have been representing children who were brought to New York state as unaccompanied minors for some time. The shelters for children separated from parents were already used to house children who showed up at the border alone. According to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, in April there were 1,577 children in New York state who had been transferred after arriving at the border alone.
“As a lawyer that has been doing this work that’s been doing this work for several years, I appreciate the attention and the focus and the advocacy that the larger community wants to provide,” said Enriquez. “It can be misdirected, some of that energy.”
Camille Mackler, director of immigration legal policy at the New York Immigration Coalition, who is also representing the children, has seen her job made harder due to the protests.
“If people are unable to go into the shelter, that includes the lawyers who are coming to visit the kids and try to help them,” Mackler said.
The protests are also making reunification efforts more difficult. Mackler said that people have been swarming the shelters with phone calls, which is clogging up the phone lines and blocking calls from relatives who are trying to find their kids.
Last week, The New York Times reported that children had arrived at the airport with bags that said “DHS” on them. Several advocacy groups mobilized rapidly and went to LaGuardia Airport. In scenes reminiscent of last year’s protests against the travel ban, people held up banners and sang hymns as they ran between terminals to find planes arriving from Texas with the hopes of seeing children.
“Imagine what it’s like to be a child whose been separated from her parent whose been carried alone on an airplane and to get to the airport and you’re greeted by a throng of people screaming, hissing, shouting,” Enriquez said. “Even if they’re saying, ‘We love you,’ or ‘You’re supported.’ They’re saying it in English.
“It’s very difficult for a child to comprehend the larger political implications of what’s happening. This is actually a child’s life; they’re not interested in who wins the midterm elections.”
Despite reservations about the tactics, Mackler said she has been floored by the consistent outpouring of support.
“It’s not like anything I’ve seen before,” she said. “I think we need to all remember what’s at stake and try to ask ourselves, when we want to do something, what’s our goal and what’s the impact going to be on these incredibly vulnerable children.”