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Feds: More than 2,200 unaccompanied immigrant minors released on Long Island this year

Children who have crossed into the United States

Children who have crossed into the United States from Mexico and countries south sleep on the floor of a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility in Brownsville, Texas, on June 18, 2014. Credit: AP / Eric Gay

More unaccompanied minors who crossed the border illegally into the United States are living in Long Island homes than anywhere else in the tristate area, the latest government figures show.

The 2,200-plus boys and girls, ages 17 and younger, have been released from federal custody in the first seven months of 2014 to live with parents, other relatives or sponsors in Nassau and Suffolk counties -- placing Long Island third nationally for the number of children released to sponsors this year, after the Washington, D.C., and Houston areas.

Figures issued late Tuesday by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement show that 1,181 of those minors went to live in Suffolk and 1,096 in Nassau. Some already have received permission to remain here legally, while others must go to immigration court to face deportation proceedings.

That compares with 578 in Queens, the New York City borough with the highest number for that period, and surpasses county-by-county figures in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. New York State ranks second in the nation, after Texas, for receiving 4,244 of the immigrant children this year.

The surge in migrating children, primarily from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, has been driven by fear of gang violence and poverty. Children from countries other than Canada and Mexico are protected from immediate deportation by a 2008 anti-trafficking law.

The policy has angered residents on Long Island and elsewhere as local plans to shelter the minors surfaced. Some fought proposals to house children in Bethpage and Commack, though a program by Syosset-based MercyFirst hasn't faced much public opposition.

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, who spoke against sheltering children in Bethpage, said he continues to be concerned.

"I share the overwhelming frustration of my constituents and urge residents to join me in contacting their federal officials," he said in a statement.

Not much of an impact

Vanessa Baird-Streeter, a spokeswoman for County Executive Steve Bellone, said Suffolk has not seen much of an effect.

County departments "have not experienced a rise in the need for services due to the unaccompanied minors' ineligible status," she said, adding that, "We are hopeful that when Congress returns to session that they will take appropriate action."

Not much is happening on that front, though.

President Barack Obama's request for funding to expedite court cases and fight trafficking was not taken up by Congress.

Among Long Island's congressional delegation, representatives on both sides of the aisle have voiced concerns about the local impact while stressing the need to address immigration policy at a national level.

Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) had said immigration hearings should be expedited so cases are decided as children are held near the border. Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) had called for the House to act before adjourning for its summer break. And Wednesday, Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) blamed inaction for lack of progress, adding the surge of minors should be treated "as a humanitarian crisis as well as a crisis that has to do with protecting our borders."

Barrett Psareas, an immigration enforcement proponent who is against bringing the children to the region, said his chief concerns are that "as always, it's funded by me, the taxpayer" and that their resettlement here affects local services.

"We have to think about their schooling, their medical costs, and my guess is if they have foster parents someone's got to pay for it," said Psareas, vice president of the Nassau County Civic Association in Cedarhurst.

Benefits touted

Immigrant advocates say the benefits outweigh the costs.

Patrick Young, program director of the Central American Refugee Center in Hempstead and Brentwood, said that taking in 2,000 children here -- where their needs will be addressed, mainly by relatives -- has a negligible impact in a region with nearly 450,000 immigrants.

"It's a number that is so small in terms of the total population that, were it not for people trying to politically exploit this issue, it would have gone practically unnoticed," Young said. "If the children are treated fairly and in accordance to American values, they will become important contributors to Long Island economically, and to our civic life."

Kenneth Wolfe, an Office of Refugee Resettlement spokesman, said the overall number of immigrant children referred to the agency is declining.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security had referred 10,483 minors for resettlement across the nation in June. That number was down to 5,305 in July and 2,167 so far in August.

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