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Feds pay Long Island nonprofit to house immigrant kids

This is the campus of the nonprofit MercyFirst

This is the campus of the nonprofit MercyFirst in Syosset July 26, 2014. Unaccompanied immigrant children are being sent to MercyFirst, which runs shelters for children. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

Immigrant children from the influx of unaccompanied minors at the United States' border with Mexico are being sent to a Long Island nonprofit that runs shelters for children and has its main housing complex in Syosset, records from the national Administration for Children and Families show.

The federal agency, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, issued $4.1 million in three payments since last year to MercyFirst -- a social service agency founded as an orphanage by the Sisters of Mercy in 1894 that houses and assists abused and neglected children.

MercyFirst's involvement began before the surge of border children became a politically charged crisis. As the shelter program on Long Island has moved quietly forward, similar arrangements have fed acrimonious debate in communities around the country where residents opposed housing immigrant kids.

Plans for a shelter at a former Grumman Corp. complex in Bethpage were nixed last month as officials cited environmental concerns regarding the property and some residents worried about local impact. But some of the same officials who criticized the Bethpage plan supported MercyFirst's role.

The funds for MercyFirst were issued in September, April and earlier this month, primarily to pay for "residential services for unaccompanied children" for an unspecified period of time, the records show. The money also was for conducting studies of homes where minors eventually could live with sponsors -- who might be relatives, guardians or foster families -- while awaiting immigration proceedings.

'Continuum of care'

It is unclear how many unaccompanied minors are in MercyFirst's shelter system. Officials at the nonprofit last week referred all questions to the federal government.

A source at the nonprofit who asked not to be named said only that the agency now houses 120 teenagers at its Syosset campus of 10 cottages on 50 acres, and it operates eight group homes for boys and girls and three mother-baby residences at locations in Nassau and Suffolk counties and in Queens and Brooklyn.

In MercyFirst's "Funders Report" for summer 2014, posted on its website, the agency notes among the past year's achievements: "Over 300 immigrant children were provided shelter and care in response to the tremendous humanitarian crisis facing our country on our southern border."

The organization -- which operates independently of the nearby Our Lady of Mercy Academy, a Catholic parochial school -- describes its services as "an integrated continuum of care for children in need" with 120 years of history on Long Island.

Federal officials said all costs for the children are covered by federal agencies until the children are released to sponsors or deported. The children in the local shelter programs could later be sent elsewhere in New York or out of the state, they said. Eventually, immigration courts would decide whether they qualify to stay under a variety of possible grounds.

Kenneth J. Wolfe, a spokesman for the federal Administration for Children and Families, said last week that he could not specify the location of any shelter.

Generally, he said in a written response to questions, the shelters "are consistently quiet and good neighbors where they are located," and they keep children in safe and self-contained settings where they remain under staff supervision at all times. On average, he said, the children stay in the shelters for less than 30 days.

"The impact of these shelters on the local community is minimal," Wolfe wrote. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services "pays for and provides all services for the children through its network of grantees. This includes providing food, clothing, education and medical screening to the children."


State is major destination

Barrett Psareas, an immigration enforcement proponent who is vice president of the Nassau County Civic Association in Cedarhurst, said he was skeptical of federal assurances.

He opposes local shelters, saying some of the children might end up relying on social services and staying on the Island and that residents should be informed by local officials when any such shelter is planned in their communities.

"I would like to see the town and county executives, our congressional representatives, and the sheriffs telling us that this is going on," Psareas said. "For one, where is my guarantee that what the federal government says is going to happen is going to happen? . . . Are they going to guarantee that they [the minors] will go back to immigration court or that their sponsors and guardians are not already illegally in the country?"

MercyFirst's arrangement to offer up to 50 beds and assist in the release of 125 other children was described in information that was temporarily posted on the agency's website. It is part of a national effort to house the thousands of children crossing the border illegally "in the least restrictive setting that is in the best interest of the child," as mandated by an anti-trafficking law.

Nationally, the Administration for Children and Families projects it will have to find beds for up to 60,000 boys and girls in the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30 -- up from nearly 25,000 children placed in shelters in the preceding year, according to agency estimates.

Most of the children so far have come from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, where they fear violence and abuse and where many live in extreme poverty, they say. Many immigrants on Long Island hail from those nations.

Since January, more than 30,000 minors detained after crossing the border illegally have been released from similar shelters throughout the United States as they were placed in the care of sponsors, federal figures released early this month show.

New York ranks second in the nation, after Texas, as the ultimate destination for immigrant children released from such shelters, with 3,347 finding homes in the state since January, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement.


Policy issues for nation, LI

The debate over what to do with the flood of unaccompanied minors is in a stalemate. President Barack Obama asked Congress for $3.7 billion to respond to the crisis in a speedy manner and fight smuggling. Republicans favor stronger emphasis on deterrence, border enforcement and easier deportation procedures.

Locally, Democratic and Republican officials alike who opposed using the old Grumman site supported MercyFirst's involvement.

Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington), whose congressional district includes Syosset, said in a statement, "The influx of unaccompanied minors is a humanitarian crisis, and I'm pleased to learn that MercyFirst, which has been serving children at this site for well over 100 years, is stepping up to lend a hand."

Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) said that "as a Long Islander, I have no problem with it" because the children "would be taken care of within the facility itself."

He did, however, add that as a matter of policy he would favor changing the law and keeping those shelters closer to the border, because "the farther they come from the border, the more of an incentive or a false hope it gives to people in Central America" to have children migrate to the United States.

Oyster Bay Town Supervisor John Venditto, a Republican, said in a statement that "there is no comparison" between the nonprofit agency's participation and the plan that raised concerns in Bethpage.

"The MercyFirst facility does not relate, in any manner whatsoever, to the federal government's 'warehousing' immigrant children at an environmentally unsafe location at the former Grumman site," Venditto said.

Brian Nevin, a spokesman for County Executive Edward Mangano, a Republican, said last week that the county "has no direct knowledge" of the MercyFirst shelter program.

Immigrant advocate Patrick Young, program director of the Central American Refugee Center in Hempstead and Brentwood, said shelters such as MercyFirst's are needed because the federal government has "an obligation to give the children a chance to be heard," considering the dangers many face if they are sent back to cities and towns where criminal gangs rule.

Said Young: "We don't want children who may be trafficked to be sent back to the home country, where they may be re-trafficked or harmed."

With Tom Brune

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