The controversy over a new Trump administration policy of separating children from parents suspected of crossing the U.S. border illegally exploded locally this week after Gov. Andrew Cuomo revealed that one of the detained children was being housed at a facility in Kingston.
At a Tuesday afternoon press conference announcing planned legal action against the federal government over the policy, Cuomo announced that about 70 children who had been separated from family at the southern border were being held in 10 facilities around the state. One, he said, was in Kingston. Cuomo’s press office did not reply to requests for more details. But under a 1997 consent decree, all children detained by immigration authorities must be turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) within 72 hours of apprehension. ORR contracts with hundreds of care facilities across the country to provide housing for children until they can be released to the care of a sponsor family. According to local immigration activist Emma Kreyche, the only ORR-contracted facility in Kingston is the Children’s Home at 27 Grove St. The nonprofit agency provides residential treatment and education services for boys ages eight to 18. In an email Wednesday, Children’s Home director of marketing and admissions Eric Houghtaling directed all inquiries regarding the school’s participation in the ORR program to ORR’s main media office in Washington D.C.
On Wednesday afternoon, Mayor Steve Noble issued a statement acknowledging the presence of a separated child at a “local federally funded youth residential care program.” Noble said he had spoken to County Executive Mike Hein about the issue and that Hein had offered to provide county resources, including trauma counseling and other support services to the child. Noble added that he had received numerous calls from area residents who offered to provide support and assistance. In response, Noble directed residents to two agencies, Catholic Charities and the Worker Justice Center, which he said were providing relevant services in the area.
Late Wednesday afternoon, President Donald Trump, facing enormous and bipartisan political pressure, announced that he would end the family separation policy. But it remains unclear what will happen to an estimated 2,300 children who have already been removed from their families at the border. The crisis began earlier this spring when U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions ended an Obama-era policy that allowed migrants caught crossing the border illegally to remain at liberty — sometimes under electronic monitoring — until their cases could be heard in an immigration court. Under Sessions’ “zero tolerance” policy, children were instead be separated from adult family members and turned over to ORR for housing. The adults, meanwhile, were to be criminally prosecuted and potentially serve a jail sentence before being returned to immigration authorities for deportation proceedings.
Kreyche said ORR had expanded its roster of contracted care facilities after a 2014 crisis brought on by a wave of “unaccompanied minors” — mostly adolescents fleeing gang violence — in Central America who arrived at the border alone. But Kreyche said the new wave of kids “rendered unaccompanied” by the family separation policy appeared to have overwhelmed the beefed-up system.
Kreyche said the issue was complicated further by the fact that the ORR-contracted facilities typically served older children while the family separation policy had resulted in very young kids and infants being taken into the system. The lack of appropriate care facilities has left children stuck in temporary holding facilities, including an abandoned Walmart in Texas, awaiting placement.
Kreyche added that it was likely that more children would be spending more time in facilities like the Children’s Home based on new Trump-era policies regarding sponsorship. Children are typically released from ORR-contracted facilities to a sponsor. The sponsor is responsible for caring for the child, ensuring they go to school and make it to immigration court appearances in a process that can take months or even years to resolve. Typically, the sponsor is a family friend or relative already residing in the U.S.
But, Kreyche said, many sponsors are undocumented themselves, or have family members who are. New policies enacted by the Trump administration include a requirement that ORR share sponsors’ information with immigration authorities and call for criminal prosecution in cases where sponsors may have aided an illegal entry by, for example, paying a “coyote” to smuggle a child across the border. Both polices, Kreyche said, would likely have a chilling effect on sponsors and leave more children in ORR-contracted facilities.
Kreyche said the new rules had exacerbated issues with an immigration system that she believes was already cruel and dysfunctional: “This is a new crisis stemming from a novel set of inhumane policies.”