It is a run down stretch in East Harlem. Across the street from a row of sanitation trucks, shutters are down on the Cayuga Centre’s office on Park Avenue. Jared Sterk, a “recent father” to a 15-month-old son, waits patiently staring at a door protected by a sole NYPD cop.
Sterk says he is at the intersection of E 131st Street and Park Avenue on a Thursday because he is a “concerned citizen”. Like several others in America, he too is horrified. A video shot by a reporter on the intervening night of Tuesday-Wednesday showed little girls being led by women into the Cayuga Centre and later with their heads covered with black clothes, taken away in a taxi.
This was the first clue for New Yorkers that what seemed reserved for television screens — children being separated from parents at the borders, 2,000 miles away in Texas — had now reached upper Manhattan. US President Donald Trump’s ‘zero-tolerance policy’ that led to children being forcibly separated from their parents appears to have shaken America. It is visible in conversations on the streets, through popular talk show hosts dedicating large chunks of air time to the issue, and nearly everyone appalled by the complete lack of information.
“I expected more people to be here this morning,” Sterk says, like the large numbers that showed up on Wednesday night to La Guardia Airport holding up loving signs in Spanish to welcome the children who were flown into the city. “But it was a difficult place to find online. The coordinates take you to the Bronx instead,” he says.
A day before, hours after the images of the girls went viral, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio stood on the same sidewalk and expressed shock. “We are all shocked at what we think is something happening far away. Well, I have to tell you I am further shocked to find out today how much this policy has now come home, right here to New York City. There are now 239 children right here as a result of the Trump administration’s family separation policy,” he said.
Mid-afternoon on Thursday, children from the facility left the building in groups, just like they had come in early that morning. Some even left wearing masks. Many among them have been spending the nights in foster care, soon after they arrived in New York, with Spanish speaking families.
The Cayuga Centres, which are partly federally funded, have for years run a programme for unaccompanied immigrant children in federal custody. After being forced into the spotlight this week, the centre put out releases and tweets. “Cayuga Centres play no role in the apprehension or initial detention of unaccompanied children or their family members prior to Office of Refugee Resettlement’s referral to its foster care programme,” it said.
“The children are being transported from Texas to New York since there are more social services here,” Manuel, a community liaison head, who works closely with councilman Mark Levine, takes a guess.
Manuel was sorting out piles of donations in Levine’s Upper West Side office. Within hours, the adjacent room to Levine’s office piled up with plastic bags and cardboard boxes filled with diapers, toys, cereal, and clothes after he had requested New Yorkers to show their support and make donations for the kids.
Elissa Cohen, who dropped off diapers and baby wipes, served as deputy director of Museum of Jewish Heritage. “I am very schooled in the history of tyrants and what happens when authoritarian regimes take over. In my life, I never ever thought we would be in this kind of crisis in our country,” she says.
Levine points to the lack of information. “Part of what is terrible about it is lack of information. Parents and children can’t contact each other, and there is no database to track anyone,” he says from his office. “The federal government has refused to share any information with local authorities.”