More than four months after being separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, the last migrant children being cared for at a Long Island shelter have left.
Three of the children were flown home to their parents in Central America last week, while two others moved in with relatives in the United States this week, including one in Wisconsin, said Gerard McCaffery, who heads MercyFirst, a Catholic social services agency that operates in both Nassau and Suffolk counties.
"We are all glad that this horrendous situation is over,” McCaffery said Wednesday. “It was never thought through and was just a mess. In the end, it was the kids who suffered unnecessarily."
The Syosset-based agency had cared for a total of 19 of the “border kids,” ages 5 to 17, since the crisis started in May, when the Trump administration imposed a “zero tolerance” illegal-immigration crackdown at the southern border. About 2,500 children were separated from their parents.
The American Civil Liberties Union sued the government, challenging the separations. The federal judge in the case set a July 26 deadline for the families to be reunited.
Some 136 children remain separated, down from about 400 in mid-August, according to court papers filed in late September.
The last five children still at MercyFirst had been there since May, McCaffery said. The 19 came from countries such as Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Brazil.
MercyFirst staff accompanied two children to Guatemala and one to Honduras last week for reunions with their parents. The trips and reunifications were emotional, both for the children and the staff, McCaffery said.
“The young kids were just crying. I think it hits them all at once when they see their parents again,” he said. “They’re upset, they’re happy, it all kind of gets rolled into one.”
“For those kids, if you are away from your parents for a few months, that is like an eternity,” he said. “Even though they have regular phone contact or Skype, it’s just not the same thing.”
Their parents “were just kind of ecstatic and a little overwhelmed by the whole thing,” he said. “I don’t think anyone expected it would take this long.”
The reunions were moving for MercyFirst staff as well, McCaffery said.
“It’s always a mixed bag. You feel great that finally the youngster is back with their family,” he said. “But you’ve connected with them and helped them through some very tough times. So there is always a little bit of a sense of loss.”
“In this work you have to get good at that, at seeing kids come and go,” he said.
The children who will remain with U.S. relatives may be eligible to apply for political asylum, McCaffery said.
MercyFirst has received about $20,000 in donations from people who said they were thankful for its work with the border children, he said.