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Allegheny

Fate of 50 immigrant children in Pittsburgh area remains uncertain

Natasha Lindstrom
| Thursday, June 21, 2018, 4:25 p.m.
Activists gathered inside Sixth Presbyterian Church and outside at the corner of Forbes and Murray avenues in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill on Wednesday, June 20, 2018, in support of families and refugees grappling with separation and detention in the United States. Locally, Holy Family Institute in Emsworth is caring for some of the more than 2,300 children separated from their parents at the border since early May.
Natasha Lindstrom | Tribune-Review
Activists gathered inside Sixth Presbyterian Church and outside at the corner of Forbes and Murray avenues in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill on Wednesday, June 20, 2018, in support of families and refugees grappling with separation and detention in the United States. Locally, Holy Family Institute in Emsworth is caring for some of the more than 2,300 children separated from their parents at the border since early May.
Hundreds of people packed into Sixth Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill on Wednesday, June 20, 2018, in support of families and refugees grappling with separation and detention in the United States. Locally, Holy Family Institute in Emsworth is caring for some of the more than 2,300 children separated from their parents at the border since early May.
Natasha Lindstrom | Tribune-Review
Hundreds of people packed into Sixth Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill on Wednesday, June 20, 2018, in support of families and refugees grappling with separation and detention in the United States. Locally, Holy Family Institute in Emsworth is caring for some of the more than 2,300 children separated from their parents at the border since early May.

A day after President Trump signed an executive order to halt the separation of immigrant families, widespread uncertainty persists over precisely what will happen to the more than 2,000 children already taken from their guardians at the border since early May.

Fifty of those children remain sheltered along the Ohio River just outside Pittsburgh — at the Holy Family Institute in the northwestern suburb of Emsworth.

The good news, at least for the short term: The nonprofit institute has plenty of food, clothes, toiletries, toys and thoughtfully curated gifts of all sorts for the children, courtesy of not only a government contract but also hundreds of concerned Western Pennsylvanians.

Just two days after letting the public know how they could help on its website, Holy Family has received such an inundation of donated items from individuals and businesses that it cannot accept anymore, Sister Linda Yankoski, CEO of the institute, told the Tribune-Review on Thursday.

“The response was overwhelming and swift, and we were barely able to keep up with the inquiries about volunteering and donations that arrived at our door,” Yankoski said. “This almost never happens, but we were overwhelmed by the generosity of the community and will be able to provide the level of care these children need during this traumatic time in their young lives.”

The institute is working to help each child in its care contact his or her family members, Yankoski said.

“We believe it is better for the children to be in a supportive, welcoming, loving environment until they can be reunited with their parents,” Yankoski said. “We recognize that this is a complicated issue; however, we cannot stand by and let these children live in less-than-optimal arrangements when we have beds, a trained, loving staff and a nurturing environment.”

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees their supervision, was unable to say late Wednesday when the families who have been separated would be reunited.

A 2015 court decision in California had set a 20-day limit for child detentions.

“Their parents obviously aren't in Pennsylvania, so I don't know how they're going to get where their parents are,” said Monica Ruiz, a Latino community organizer with Casa San Jose in Pittsburgh's South Hills.

“Holy Family isn't a bad place. But these kids are still not with their families,” Ruiz said. “The kids should be immediately reunited with their families, and those families should be able to get out on bond because they're looking for asylum.”

On Wednesday night, a few hundred people packed into Sixth Presbyterian Church and lit candles at the corner of Murray and Forbes avenues in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood in support of the stranded children and comprehensive immigration reform.

“It's heartbreaking because as children they should have the support and the love of the world, and to deny any of that, especially their families from them, is a crime that cannot be ignored and is inhuman and just terrible,” said participant Antonia Allen, 13, of Squirrel Hill. The soon-to-be high school freshman noted that her mother was lucky enough to get a green card when she came to the U.S. from Latin America, but she knows many others are unable to do so.

The interfaith candlelit vigil included a diverse mix of participants of many ages and faiths — Jewish, Catholic, Episcopalian, Muslim, Lutheran — as well as atheists, agnostics and pagans. They all rallied around a common goal: ensuring that America doesn't strip the humanity out of policy decisions regarding immigrants and refugees.

“It's part of the human DNA to care for others,” said Fr. Michael Foley of Church of the Redeemer Episcopalian church in Squirrel Hill. “And it's when you stop caring that you express your inhumanity.”

Holy Family Institute's roots date to 1900, when it helped Polish children find new homes in the United States.

In recent years, it has worked with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to house unaccompanied child refugees.

In 2010, the institute came to the aid of 12 orphans removed from Haiti without proper authority.

In 2014, Holy Family took in unaccompanied children who had arrived at the Mexican border after fleeing Central America.

“These children are fleeing violent regions and enduring long and perilous journeys in search of a better life and future,” Yankoski said.

Ruiz said Trump's order did not quell her concerns over the ongoing mistreatment of immigrants.

“I can't be happy that he's (Trump) doing something that he should have done,” Ruiz said. “It shouldn't have happened in the first place.”

Ruiz acknowledged that the shift to more aggressive deportation began under President Obama, whose administration made it a felony rather than a misdemeanor to enter the country illegally and fast-tracked certain types of deportation cases.

“Under the Obama administration, it wasn't wonderful either,” Ruiz said. “What (Obama) really did was he created the machine that we have now which is this ability to do these mass deportations. “(Obama) laid the ground work for it, and now Trump is just using it to his best ability to get everybody out of here,” Ruiz said. “It wasn't great then, it's way worse now.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514, nlindstrom@tribweb.com or via Twitter @NewsNatasha.

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