Hundreds of immigrant children have been discreetly flown thousands of miles from the US’s southern border where they were separated from their parents – sparking public uproar and forcing Donald Trump to sign an executive order to try and keep families together. One of the youngsters was less than a year old.
In an indication of the scale of the crisis the president is belatedly trying to address, reports suggest youngsters have been sent to at least half-a-dozen facilities in New York’s leafy, suburban Westchester County and New York City. State and city officials say they were not informed by federal authorities about the transfer of the young people.
Officials at the facilities contracted by the federal government have refused access to the media, including The Independent. But their use to house children has led public officials in the liberal state to angrily threaten legal action against the federal government and its policies that have led to the separation of families.
“They do not belong here - they belong with their mothers and fathers,” George Latimer, executive of Westchester County, said in a statement. “I am calling on the federal government to halt this practise of breaking up families and ripping children away from those who love them immediately.”
He added: “Let us all remember that Westchester County, along with New York State and the United States, was built on the backs on immigrants. They are part of the fabric of our home and they deserve to be treated to humanly.”
As many as 2,000 children have been taken from their parents after arriving in the United States under a policy of “zero-tolerance” championed by attorney general Jeff Sessions, and implemented earlier this year. The majority of those children appear to have been detained in Texas facilities, but up to 300 immigrant children who were separated at the border have now been brought to New York, according to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who said that 239 children had been moved to his city.
New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo - who has vowed to sue the federal government alongside a handful of other states – had previously said that at least 70 children were being held elsewhere in the state.
“It’s a violation of the constitutional rights of the parents to the care, custody and control of their children,” Mr Cuomo said on Tuesday on a conference call with the media. “This is a well-founded principle. It is in state constitutions; it is in the federal constitution.”
The immigrant family separations - coupled with chilling images showing children interred behind chain link fencing, without guarantee that they will be reunited with their family soon, or ever - have sparked national and international outcry that US immigration forces are violating the human rights of immigrants, many of whom have arrived at the US border from Central America seeking protection from violence in their own countries.
The facilities housing unaccompanied minors in New York State appear to be a far cry from the types of locations seen in Texas, where the chain link fence cages were seen corralling children, and where tent camps have popped up to meet the demands created by the Trump administration’s decision to criminally prosecute any adult who crosses the border, even if they assert a claim of credible fear that deportation could mean violence if returned to their home countries, or death.
In the facilities in New York City’s suburban Westchester County, at least two locations visited by The Independent on Wednesday felt more like boarding schools than internment camps. They featured expansive green lawns with basketball courts, baseball fields, and soccer fields surrounded by lush northeast US foliage.
Officials at three sites visited by The Independent refused to allow access to the inside to see living conditions of the children who have been relocated to their sites. Officials at at least two said that their facilities have housed unaccompanied minors previously – the phenomenon of unaccompanied minors arriving in the US, overall, is not new – but did not comment further on the new children who have arrived.
The lawns outside of the sites were largely empty, but a few young people could be seen in various locations.
One facility, the Children’s Village in Dobb’s Ferry, referred questions to the Department of Health and Human Services – which is responsible for unaccompanied minor migrants in the US — and indicated that the federal agency is handling all media coordination, even though the facility is privately contracted with that organisation.
Another, the Abbott House, a community-based human services agency in Irvington, failed to immediately respond to enquiries.
A third, the Lincoln Hall Boys’ Haven in Lincolndale, would not let The Independent onto the grounds, and suggested that enquiries be made through a number provided. No phone calls were answered.
In total, reports indicate that there are at least 10 federally contracted facilities in New York State where unaccompanied minors can be housed. As many as 310 unaccompanied minors were quietly shipped to the state, according to a report from the New York Daily News, and both Mr Cuomo and Mr De Blasio have vowed to fight against the policies that make the detention possible — New York State has vowed to join a handful of other states in a lawsuit attacking the “zero tolerance” policies that may have led to family separations.
The New York facilities include at least one in New York City’s East Harlem neighbourhood, where Mr de Blasio made a visit Wednesday afternoon, saying that over 200 of the children had been detained. The youngest, he said, is just nine months old.
“How is it possible that none of us knew there were 239 children right here in our own city,” Mr de Blasio asked prior to that visit, noting that the federal government had not been forthcoming with information regarding the children. “The federal government has not given us any information. We have asked for it.”
The backlash over the family separations has sparked action among America’s corporate body, alongside the protests of civilians, and at least two airlines have told the US government that it will not transport children who have been separated from their families at the border on their planes.
Mr Trump’s executive order on the issue, which the White House says will keep families intact while charges are pursued against parents, comes after the Trump administration repeatedly refused to acknowledge their “zero tolerance” policy as one that separates families. Mr Trump has blamed Democrats for the family separation crisis, even though it was his administration that unilaterally imposed the stricter processing policies of immigrants that has led to public outrage.