Tents to house unaccompanied immigrant children are seen at the...

Tents to house unaccompanied immigrant children are seen at the Tornillo-Marcelino Serna Port of Entry on Monday in Tornillo, Texas. Credit: Getty Images North America / Chris Chavez

Eight of the approximately 2,000 children separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border as part of a controversial immigration policy are staying in a federally approved shelter on Long Island, the head of a Catholic human services agency said Monday.

The children have been under the care of Syosset-based MercyFirst for about a month, said Gerard McCaffery, president and CEO. It is the only agency on Long Island with a contract with the federal government to receive the children, whose parents have been detained after crossing the border illegally, he said.

They range in age from 6 to 12 and are from Central American nations including Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, McCaffery said. They are staying in one of MercyFirst’s group homes on Long Island and attending school at the organization’s main campus in Syosset, he said.

The boys and girls have shown signs of the emotional impact of being separated from their parents, he said.

“Kids are very resilient but it doesn’t take much for a kid to start crying and miss his mom,” McCaffery said.

MercyFirst, which cares for children who have been in foster care or have come from troubled families, received the Central American children under a contract with the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement.

The children were not sent to Long Island because they necessarily have family connections here, McCaffery said. Rather, they were sent because MercyFirst had available beds, he said.

The Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy on immigrants entering the country illegally started about two months ago but has received widespread attention in the past week. Agents separate children from their parents after they cross the border together and are detained. In the past, families typically would be kept together as their cases were processed through the immigration system.

Critics including former first lady Laura Bush have denounced the separations as inhumane, while President Donald Trump has blamed Democrats for them. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a statement Monday saying the administration “does not have a blanket policy of separating families at the border.”

The administration said it separates minors from accompanying adults in cases such as when they cannot establish the family relationship or when the adult is referred for criminal prosecution. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Monday the administration’s policy is to prosecute “adults who flout our laws to come here illegally instead of waiting their turn or claiming asylum at any port of entry.”

MercyFirst, which was founded by the Sisters of Mercy, has taken in over the past few years some of the thousands of unaccompanied children who crossed the border without their parents and were detained by immigration authorities. Long Island was among the largest recipients of unaccompanied children in the United States, partly because of its large Central American population.

Meanwhile, Catholic Charites said Monday it is gearing up to help any children separated from their parents at the border if they are sent to Long Island to live with relatives.

Catholic Charities provided services for more than 5,000 unaccompanied minors who have arrived on Long Island since 2011, said Carmen Maquilon, director of Immigrant and Refugee Services for Catholic Charities.

“The separation of the families — that’s not who we are” as a nation, Maquilon said. “To me that is heartbreaking. It is contrary to what we have always done. We have always advocated for family reunification.”

Local immigrant advocates criticized the policy and said immigrants are panicking over it, while some legal experts think it could end up providing the children with legal status in the United States.

“On the face of it, we are literally stealing those children from their parents,” said Anu Joshi, immigration policy director at the New York Immigration Coalition, an advocacy group in Manhattan. “We expect that many of them probably will have sponsors in the Long Island and New York region, but everything is delayed because they have overwhelmed the system” with cases.

Patrick Young, program director of the Central American Refugee Center in Hempstead and Brentwood, said the policy is causing growing alarm among local immigrants whose family members, including children, might be held at the border.

At the same time, more Americans who are not usually engaged in immigration issues have joined recent protests against a policy he said goes against the country’s principles.

“It represents an all-out offensive to those immigrants and their families . . . who essentially have risked their lives to avoid cooperating with the MS-13” and other gangs in their countries, Young said.

Many of the children are very young and cannot express their wishes and, in separating them from their guardians, the federal government is actually turning them into unaccompanied minors, he said. Many could be classified as special immigrant juveniles who would qualify to stay legally in the country, Johnson said.

“What ends up happening is they end up in custody of the government” until they can get proper legal representation, Johnson said. “Parents have a right to the custody of their children and that’s something our society holds as really important.”

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