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Advocates: Don’t protest at shelters housing immigrant children

From left, Tom Messina, Kat Sullivan, Larkin Grimm

From left, Tom Messina, Kat Sullivan, Larkin Grimm and Mary Carney protest the separation of families at the U.S.-Mexico border on Friday in Syosset. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

Immigration and child welfare advocates are asking protesters not to demonstrate outside shelters housing migrant children for fear of distressing them.

This week, protesters gathered at LaGuardia Airport and some shelters around the country that are holding children who have been separated from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The New York Immigration Coalition said Friday the public should refrain from such demonstrations, even if they aim to show support for the children.

“The protests at the airports, the protests at the shelters have been terrifying for the children because of the size of the crowds,” said Camille Mackler, the coalition’s director of immigration legal policy, while speaking on a news conference call. “They are suffering from high levels of trauma.”

Children who are suddenly separated from one or both parents — especially under frightening or chaotic circumstances — are at higher risk for developing anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorders, according to The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

The White House’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy has led to the separation of approximately 2,300 children from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border in about the past two months. President Donald Trump on Wednesday signed an order to stop separating children from their parents.

On Friday, a handful of demonstrators gathered outside MercyFirst in Syosset in silent protest of the facility’s housing of eight children separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Kat Sullivan, a registered nurse who organized the protest via Facebook, said protesters made sure they didn’t cause any further harm or disruption to the children than they may have already experienced.

Signs were intentionally written in English on small posters because most of the children only speak and read Spanish, and the group did not chant or otherwise make noise, she said.

Sullivan and two other women demonstrating said they have worked closely in their respective careers with children who have experienced trauma.

Mary Carney, of Freeport, is a retired social worker.

“I have empathy for the children,” said Carney, 66. “I am more upset as a mother and grandmother.”

For about a month, the children have been under the care of MercyFirst, the only agency on Long Island with a contract with the federal government to receive the children.

Experts say separated children already have been through plenty of trauma, and the separation from their parents, depending on its length, could have long-term effects on their lives.

The children experienced the trauma of the place they’re fleeing, with many coming to the U.S. to escape violence, in addition to a dangerous journey, said Teresa Grella-Hillebrand, the director of the Counseling and Mental Health Professions Clinic at Hofstra University’s Saltzman Community Services Center.

“The biggest factor is the initial separation from the parent,” Grella-Hillebrand said. “These kids are scared.”

However, she said it’s hard to know if the protests are having any impact on the children.

“I imagine any kind of noise or sense of unrest can be unsettling to the children,” she said. “It might be troubling but there’s no way to really know.”

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