Six migrant children at a Long Island shelter are entangled in legal and logistical red tape that is keeping them from being reunited with their parents more than two months after they were separated.
The children, all from countries in Central America and separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, have been at the MercyFirst campus in Syosset since May.
The complexities of tracking down their parents, doing the paperwork and making travel arrangements could keep the families separated indefinitely. The children might end up not going home at all if their parents opt for them to seek political asylum.
"What concerns us most is the amount of time all this has gone on without a resolution," said Gerard McCaffery, who heads MercyFirst, a Catholic social services agency that operates in both Nassau and Suffolk counties as well as New York City. "Several months is not a lot of time for an adult, but the younger the child is the more this can feel like an eternity to them.”
About 2,500 migrant children were separated from their parents in the spring during a Trump administration crackdown on illegal immigration at the southern border. The American Civil Liberties Union sued the government, challenging the separations. The federal judge hearing the case set a July 26 deadline for the families to be reunited.
Today, 1,900 of the children are back with their families because for the most part their parents are being held in the United States. Some 400, including the six at MercyFirst, are in limbo because their parents have been deported.
Until about a month ago, nine migrant children had been staying at MercyFirst. Three had parents who were detained and were being held in the U.S. so the process of bringing those families back together was much easier, McCaffery said.
The nine children ranged in age from 5 to 17 and came from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Brazil, McCaffery said. He couldn't provide additional information about the children because of federal privacy laws.
Immigration advocates point to several stumbling blocks to reuniting the families, with confusion over who should be leading the effort at the top of the list.
At hearings in the ACLU's lawsuit, government lawyers argued the ACLU and other private organizations should track down the parents deported to their homelands. The ACLU countered that the responsibility should fall on the government. The judge sided with the ACLU.
Still, the standoff created confusion for the agencies taking care of the migrant children, delaying efforts to find their parents, said Julie Rosicky of International Social Service USA, a Washington-based agency that helps reunite migrant children and their parents.
Rosicky's group and many others have mobilized to help with reunifications, she said.
A big challenge in bringing the families back together is simply finding the parents back in their homeland, the advocates say.
“Just as a matter of logistics, it’s just that much more complicated because we are talking about international borders," said Leah Chavla of the Women’s Refugee Commission in Washington, "and we are talking about people who are far apart now and they are not all under the U.S. government custody the way the kids are.”
Finding parents deported to Central American countries can be particularly difficult because families often don't have addresses like families do in the United States. Streets don't have names and houses don't have numbers.
Some addresses provided by the government list, for instance, “calle sin nombre,” or “street without a name.”
"You don’t have fixed house numbers," Chavla said. "Sometimes there may be markers that are no longer there.”
Then, there are the parents who live in remote areas and speak indigenous languages but little or no Spanish, Chavla said.
When parents are located, the next hurdle is confirming the relationship: Obtaining birth certificates and other documents can be difficult, the advocates said.
How to physically reunite the families can be tricky, too. Flying a child home means covering the cost and finding an escort. Bringing the parents to the child means getting permission from the government for the deported parents to re-enter the United States, even though they had already crossed the border illegally and been deported, Rosicky said.
Deported parents also might decide it makes more sense for their child to simply remain in the United States with another relative or a foster family and seek political asylum or another form of relief under U.S. law, said Gui Stampur of Safe Passage Project, a legal and social services agency in Manhattan that is representing some of the separated children.
“Returning to the place they fled is not in their best interest,” Stampur said of the migrant children.
But parents who choose to have their children apply for asylum could have to rethink their decision, McCaffery said.
"Another issue the feds are grappling with is whether approving this option violates the court order to reunite the child with their parent," McCaffery said.
Whatever happens, Stampur said, the migrant children need to be reunited with their parents — soon.
“Our kids have already been extremely traumatized . . . and each day . . . is another day they are further traumatized,” Stampur said. “It's not right and not what this country is all about."