For four months, Claudia has not seen her son.
She is one of hundreds of parents waiting to reunite with their children as a result of President Donald Trump’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy that sought to criminally prosecute anyone illegally crossing the U.S. border. The result? More than 6,000 families have been separated, according to Amnesty International, in a Trump administrative maneuver that has often been criticized for operating in the dark of night.
(Literally, in the dark of night. This June, NY1 discovered five young girls being shuffled into East Harlem’s Cayuga Center past midnight.)
As confusion shrouds the facts about how many unaccompanied minors have entered and are being detained at facilities located in New York, members of the state legislature introduced the Separation of Children Accountability Response Act (SCAR Act) in July in an effort to increase the transparency of the process. State Senator Brian Benjamin and Assemblymember Harvey Epstein, two Democrats who co-sponsored the act, rallied at Foley Square on Monday with New Sanctuary Coalition, religious leaders and other affected community members in an effort to mobilize support for SCAR’s passage.
It was there, with gray skies and the Thurgood Marshall Courthouse looming behind her, that Claudia, 32, tearfully recounted her attempts to retrieve her son, who she said is currently being held in New York after the two attempted to enter the country from Mexico. “I don’t know what I am going to do,” a translator communicated on her behalf. “I have complied with all […] that they are asking me to provide them and they just don’t know when I can have my child.”
The SCAR Act would require every federally-contracted child welfare agency in the state that is holding impacted children to report to the Commissioner of Children and Family Services every 15 days. This report would provide essential information on the detained children, such as how many of them are currently in the system and how many have thus far been reunited with their parents. Reported information would then be made available to the public.
“We need to save families like this from future scars,” Epstein, who represents neighborhoods on Manhattan’s East Side neighborhood, said during the press conference. “Unfortunately, Claudia’s son is gonna be scarred from this four-month experience and who knows how much longer. How much can we endure?”
The press conference followed a meeting which included state legislators, community leaders, government officials and representatives from the Cayuga Center and Children’s Village foster care providers.
Ravi Ragbir, the Executive Director of New Sanctuary Coalition, was present, describing the meeting as an “informational gathering.”
“No one knew what was happening, but this space is not just to talk,” Ragbir said. “This space is about moving forward to really create a policy that will be able to make that information easily accessible.”
While the state legislature does not go back in session until January, Governor Andrew Cuomo has the power to convene both bodies in an extraordinary legislative session in order to expedite the SCAR Act’s passage. First, however, Benjamin said that he is focused on gathering support for the measure among his colleagues.
“I would love for him to do that,” Benjamin, who represents Harlem and other upper Manhattan neighborhoods, said, referring to Cuomo potentially convening the legislature before January, “and the first step for us is to get our members on board, because once our members are on board, then we can go make that case to him.”
In the time since Attorney General Jeff Sessions first announced the administration’s zero-tolerance policy this past April, Homeland Security officials reported as many as 2,342 separated children from May 5 to June 9. After fierce public backlash, President Trump signed an executive order in June that would keep families together — although adults continue to be criminally prosecuted — and a federal court ruled that the administration had to reunite all of the separated children within 30 days.
This task of reuniting children with their parents has proven daunting for the administration which had little to no prior plan for executing the court order. Language barriers, agency placement confusion and the overall difficulty of navigating through a bureaucratic patchwork has slowed the reunification process down. Today, the custody of hundreds of separated children continues to remain in the hands of the U.S. government.
If the SCAR Act is passed, both Benjamin and Epstein still see a long road ahead to recovery.
“You can’t just return them after you separated them and just let them off on their merry way,” Benjamin said. The children need to be provided with resources, he added, including mental health care and access to education, “given the fact that we created this mess.”
For now, however, all that parents like Claudia can do is wait.
Photo: Claudia (center), who has not seen her son in four months, stands with immigration advocates in Foley Square on Oct. 15. Credit: Chelsey Sanchez.