On Thursday night, across the street from rows of garbage trucks parked under Metro-North train tracks, more than a hundred New Yorkers gathered for a silent vigil outside the headquarters of Cayuga Centers, a nonprofit foster care agency in Harlem.
Currently in the care of centers run by the agency in New York State are at least 239 unaccompanied immigrant children who were separated from their parents at the southern U.S. border by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Holding signs with such slogans as “Reunite the children with their parents” and “We are disgusted and upset,” the demonstrators lit candles and arranged dozens of child-sized shoes on a blanket laid out on the sidewalk.
“We are here to protect the children who were placed in our community — unannounced, and without the consent of their parents — and to give them all the love that we can, by monitoring what is happening to them,” Queen Mother Dr. Delois Blakely, a local activist and honorary mayor of Harlem, told the Voice.
The vigil was among many mobilizations that were held in the city after news broke on Wednesday that, over the past few weeks, hundreds of unaccompanied immigrant children have been quietly sent to New York after being taken from their parents. Of an estimated 700 separated children in New York, some 350 have come through Cayuga Centers, one of several social service agencies in the state that the federal government contracts with to take in unaccompanied minors. According to Mayor de Blasio, these children include a nine-year-old boy from Honduras who traveled alone on a bus from Texas, as well as a nine-month-old baby.
Federal authorities never notified de Blasio that these children had arrived in New York. City officials only learned of the situation this week, after a relative of a Honduran child asked a friend to contact the mayor. City Hall still lacks critical information about the children being held in New York: exactly how many of them are here, their names and ages, their countries of origin, and the whereabouts of their parents. According to a spokesperson for City Councilmember Mark Levine, who represents the Harlem district where Cayuga Centers is located, the children are staying at various residential centers run by nonprofit agencies, including Cayuga, which is not itself a residential facility but provides daily social services for the children.
“How is the federal government holding back that information from the people of this city and holding back the help these kids could need?” De Blasio asked at a press conference on Wednesday.
“What will happen to these 300-plus kids in the next few months is a total unknown,” Councilmember Levine told the Voice. “It’s quite frightening. We have never dealt with a situation of this scale in our district. What’s arriving here today is really unprecedented for us.”
After massive public outcry, President Trump signed an executive order on Wednesday that claims to prevent additional immigrant families from being torn apart. But the Trump administration has not announced any concrete plans to reunite the thousands of families who have already been separated: More than 2,300 separated children are still scattered across the country, and federal officials reportedly have no reliable system for keeping track of which children belong to which parents, some of whom are imprisoned and some of whom have already been deported. Instead, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement is seeking to place the children in temporary foster homes, while the Pentagon assesses how it might house as many as 20,000 unaccompanied migrant children on military bases.
New Yorkers are mobilizing in the face of this crisis. On Wednesday evening, Spanish speakers attended an information session at Cayuga Centers about how to apply to become foster parents for separated children in New York. At LaGuardia Airport, a crowd of hundreds demonstrated during the arrival of what appeared to be a group of unaccompanied immigrant boys arriving on a plane from Texas. Levine’s office put out a call for donations of supplies in an effort “to make sure that the 239 children in NYC do not want for material needs.”
By noon on Thursday, the councilmember’s district office was filled with shopping bags full of donated clothes, diapers, teething rings, shampoo, blankets, teddy bears, Pedialyte popsicles, and a collection of drawings with messages of support made by kids at a nearby school. The agencies working with the refugee children — including Abbott House, a foster care center that’s currently housing some of them — have since told the councilmember’s office that they can no longer handle additional physical contributions. Levine is now encouraging people to make financial donations to the nonprofit organizations attempting to support the children, such as the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights.
“We have been flooded with generosity,” Levine said. “Our office is rapidly filling up and our phones are ringing off the hook. This is a very, very tough situation, and we don’t want to be blind to the need to fight politically to reunite these kids with their families, but I’m really heartened by the way New Yorkers are responding. It gives me a lot of hope that our society will get beyond the cruel policies that have put these kids in this terrible position.”
While many are similarly heartened by the local response, vigils and donations can only do so much. Obstacles to providing more substantive relief and reunification for separated families have so far proved insurmountable. Even seasoned politicians and established activist organizations appear to be at a loss for how to change that.
As Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Tuesday, the federal government has “essentially gagged the facilities” operating in New York and prohibited the state from providing medical or mental-health services for the children. “If we want to provide any services to the children, we’d have to go through the federal government and it’s a protracted process that would take weeks,” Cuomo said. “Why the federal government would want to be in a position to stop a state from offering mental health services, support services, for young children suffering trauma just adds further insult to further injury.”
Mayor de Blasio said that some of the children who come to Cayuga Centers daily for classes and social services have bed bugs, lice, chicken pox, and other contagious diseases. At least twelve of the children have been treated in local emergency rooms.
Hundreds of professional attorneys, doctors, teachers, and social workers have contacted Levine’s office with offers to volunteer, but if state officials are having trouble getting the clearance required to provide aid, members of the public likely will, too. Levine’s office is compiling a list of professionals who have offered to help, and plans to contact them if and when opportunities arise.
Some activists have expressed concern that the news of Trump’s executive order will give people the mistaken impression that the issue has been resolved. They emphasize that public action is still urgently necessary.
“We need to make sure that this kind of public support doesn’t only happen when there’s a crisis in the news,” said Natalia Aristizabal, co-director of organizing at Make the Road New York, a nonprofit group that helped plan Thursday’s rally at LaGuardia. “It’s definitely been inspiring to see this response, but we need people to do more. And that ‘more’ doesn’t always mean working directly with an immigrant. It can mean working with your own family to make sure they’re understanding of this issue. It means humanizing the parents of these children, and showing support for immigrant communities across the board.”
Such support was not universally expressed at Thursday’s vigil. Dionn Apuzzo, 67, a former employee of Puerto Rico’s Coast Guard who lives in Harlem, stood beside a cop at the edge of the candle-holding crowd, shaking her head.
“America is going down the drain,” Apuzzo told the Voice. “Yes, I voted for Trump, and I’ll vote for him again. I think the president’s doing the right thing. America has to start looking out for Americans. We don’t need more people here. Everyone wants to come here for free meals, free everything. Enough. If you want to come here, come legally, like my father did from Italy, and my mom from Puerto Rico, in the Fifties. And why is no one helping Puerto Rico? Oh, and make sure you write about the guy with the ‘Fuck America’ sign. He’s a disgrace.”
“America is a disgrace,” replied a man from the crowd. “Children are in jail.”
“I love this country,” Apuzzo retorted. “And New York City is the best city. You get help here. If you need it, they’ll help you.”
A man wearing tie-dye who had previously been arguing with Apuzzo said, “I agree.”
After the vigil, demonstrators packed up banners that read “Welcome, Children and Parents, We Love You” in English and Spanish. A few headed downtown to spend the night camping outside of 201 Varick Street, where an ICE detention center is located. Earlier that day, dozens of parents and their babies had flooded the New York offices of ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations, as hordes of cyclists riding with the group Bikes Against Deportation blocked the doors of the Varick Street building.
Levine insists that no one should feel powerless to help.
“The fact that Trump reversed himself so dramatically on Wednesday was the result of activism,” Levine said. “Nothing else made him do that. He didn’t have a moral epiphany. He was responding to pressure from the public — from activists and regular people who forced even Republicans to start speaking out against the separation of families. I think the lesson we should take from this is that we have to ramp up the pressure even further, because this crisis is not over.”