NYC Earmarks $4.1 million for Immigrant Children

Bitta Mostofi at the Sept. 17 briefing at City Hall. (Screen shot from video on First Lady Chirlane McCray Facebook page)

At a City Hall briefing Monday morning where a group of 16 volunteer attorneys and social workers reported back from spending a week in Texas assisting immigrant families in detention, it was announced that the city would earmark $4.1 million to provide legal assistance to separated children and unaccompanied minors still residing in NYC. Bitta Mostofi, NYC commissioner of Immigrant Affairs, led the group, and the Mayor’s Fund helped to provide support for the group’s travel to the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas.

At present, said Mostofi, about 40 children remain in the city, out of the more than 300 who earlier this year had been separated from the parents and placed in residential centers here. A court order forcing the federal government to reunite families succeeded in doing so for the majority of the children in NYC. However, many children ended up being reunited in detention centers.

Meanwhile, unaccompanied minors living in the city – who have made their way here in recent years, fleeing violence in Central America – number nearly 1,500, Mostofi estimated. The $4.1 million, which will also go toward legal risk assessments and screening for those seeking to sponsor migrant children, should help “more than 900 children” in the city who currently don’t have any legal representation, noted Department of Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks. The city will reach out to children who “need a helping hand, not the back of hand,” said Banks. The $4.1 million is coming from the $30 million the city has already budgeted toward legal services for immigrants. Under federal immigration law, there is no requirement that immigrants receive legal counsel, but some cities such as New York are helping to provide such representation.

The group that worked 12 hours a day for a week at the Dilley Pro Bono Project, part of the Immigration Justice Campaign, spoke primarily with mothers. The lawyers assisted many of the women in prepping for “credible and reasonable fear interviews” that immigration officials conduct with migrants seeking asylum. They, and the social workers who attempted to provide some help to the immigrants, heard harrowing stories about the migrants’ experiences with violence in their home countries in Central America and their desperate need to shield their children from that violence. They also heard mothers report that, once reunited with children they had recently been separated from during the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy this summer, the children sometimes accused their parents of abandoning them.

For the mothers and children alike, the experience was traumatic. Mostofi spoke about hearing mothers say, first off when they began to talk with the volunteers, “51, 52, 53” the numbers of days they had been separated from their children. She said that the concern for all the mothers they met was “first and foremost, for their children – a commonality that binds us all.”

“To inflict this kind of lasting trauma on children, on families, is unconscionable,” she said. The city did many things to try to “heal some of the hurt” suffered by children who had been separated from their families and placed in NYC, from offering psychiatric services and health care at local hospitals, to distributing books and games, to facilitating trips to museums and zoos. She said that “of course none of that can take the place of being with their families. The Trump administration has risked causing permanent harm to thousands of immigrant children including those already suffering trauma from experiences they faced in their home countries. This disregard for the humanity of immigrant families and children is truly appalling.”

Mostofi stressed that pressure on the federal government – from the public and the courts – must continue. Such pressure prompted the administration to reverse family separation, and court orders forced it to allow 1,000 parents whose children were taken from them a second chance to make their case for asylum. Now, though, the federal government has proposed a rule to extend detention. While family separation is “horrific,” she said, “detention is not an acceptable alternative.”

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