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Long Islanders reach out to migrant children separated from their parents

Margarita Grasing, executive director of the Hispanic Brotherhood

Margarita Grasing, executive director of the Hispanic Brotherhood of Rockville Centre, is helping collect items for migrant children.  Credit: Michael Owens

Their tender little faces touched the nation.

Many Long Islanders found themselves so moved by the plight of the migrant children that they wanted to help somehow. One set up a big collection box for diapers and toys. Republicans and Democrats came together to organize a fundraiser. A lawyer is offering to represent the kids free in court. An untold number made donations to humanitarian charities.

Since early May, some 2,300 migrant children have been separated from their parents at the southern border after the families crossed into the United States illegally from Mexico. Ten of the children are being cared for on Long Island, at the MercyFirst shelter in Syosset.

Immigration authorities are now detaining parents and their children together, and the Trump administration has a court-imposed deadline for reuniting the separated families.

The children’s stories have struck a chord across society, even beyond politics, said Daniel Sciarra, a psychologist who teaches at Hofstra University.

“There are issues that transcend culture when it comes to children, and bad things happening to children,” Sciarra said.

Parents, for instance, think about the pain they would feel if they were separated from their children, he said.

“They would just put themselves in that position,” Sciarra said. “That is part of the outrage.”

On its website, MercyFirst thanks those who have donated items for their “overwhelming support” and encourages others to make a monetary contribution or inquire about what items might still be needed.

Now, a few of the ways that Long Islanders are helping:

The attorney

A couple of months ago, early one morning, Jeanne-Catherine Ellis sat down with a newspaper and a cup of coffee. A story about the migrant children caught her eye.

“I was supremely disappointed,” said Ellis, 54, a lawyer who lives in Bayville.

The surprise has worn off, but not her indignation.

She thinks about all the wonderful people she met during the six years she spent in Costa Rica in the 1980s, working and going to school. She thinks about the time she represented a friend’s wife who had crossed into the United States illegally from Ecuador.

And she has come to a decision.

“If there’s a way I can help, I will,” she said.

Ellis plans on reaching out to MercyFirst to offer her legal services for free for the migrant children staying there. They range in age from 4 to 17 and come from Guatemala, Honduras, Brazil and Nicaragua.

“I’m bilingual. I can talk to them,” she said. “I can help them connect to their parents.”

Strength in numbers

Margarita Grasing wanted help collecting items for the migrant children, so she turned to Emma Travers. Their groups — Grasing is executive director of the Hispanic Brotherhood of Rockville Centre and Travers co-founded the Rockville Centre-based Raising Voices USA — had worked together before, lending a hand to hurricane victims in Puerto Rico.

This time, Grasing provided the collection location at the brotherhood’s headquarters at 59 Clinton Ave. Travers broadcast the message of giving to more than 3,500 people on her group’s Twitter and Facebook lists.

The blankets, diapers, toys and toiletries are already coming in.

When they have enough, they’ll take the boxes to Town Hall in Hempstead, which has put out an even bigger collection box.

Boxes galore

Hempstead Town Clerk Sylvia Cabana reached out to MercyFirst, but shelter officials told her that they preferred monetary donations.

That made her uneasy because of her job.

“As a public official, I didn’t want to take people’s money,” she said.

So Cabana found a big box. And as soon as she placed the box in her office, folks started dropping in items.

Then another box popped up in the main entranceway of town hall, and another turned up at the office of tax receiver Donald Clavin Jr.

When the boxes are full, Cabana plans on spending her own money to ship the items to the Texas center where many of the kids are being detained.

“It has to get to the children,” she said.

Putting aside partisan differences

Rebecca Alesia, a member of the Oyster Bay Town Board , has been getting calls from a lot of moms who want to help the migrant children at MercyFirst.

And she wanted to help the kids, too. She wanted to let them know that “they are loved and cared for by the community where they live.”

A Republican, Alesia decided that whatever she did would be something that reached across party lines.

“To me, this was a horror,” Alesia said of the separated families. “It’s hard for me, regardless of party affiliation, to be OK with it.”

She called Nassau Legis. Joshua Lafazan of Syosset, who ran on the Democratic Party line but isn’t registered with any political party.

They settled on a fundraiser. Lafazan contacted the place where he held his election victory party, Hurricane Grill & Wings in Syosset. Everything is all set: The event is from 7 to 10 p.m. Monday. The minimum donation of $23 includes food and refreshments.

Since then, a half dozen other public officials have gotten on board. Oyster Bay Town Clerk James Altadonna Jr. has offered to pay $2,500 out of his own pocket to underwrite the evening.

Lafazan plans to visit MercyFirst soon to make sure the kids are safe and sound.

“I also plan on handing the CEO a nice check,” he said.

With Raisa Camargo

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