The room is bare, its walls bare too but there is laughter and, most importantly, now there are no cages.
However, the question of when they will see their mommy or daddy again still remains.
At least 239 migrant children separated from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border are in the care of Cayuga Centers in New York, and it is unclear if or when they’ll be reunited with their parents.
On Thursday, children were seen emerging from a government facility where the migrant children are said to have been taken — many without Mayor Bill de Blasio’s knowledge, according to CNN. A total of 350 children have been at the center since Donald Trump‘s administration implemented its “zero-tolerance” policy, which has led to the separation of some 2000 children from their parents.
A child abuse activist and former attorney, 67-year-old Jeffrey Drummond, says he visited the Harlem center on Thursday and saw several tables seating at least 100 children.
“They were playing with toy-like things. It was a bare room, bare walls,” he says, noting that he was asked to leave shortly after arriving. “There were little chairs for the kids and tables.”
Drummond adds: “None of the kids were crying or screaming. They were playing with things and there was a little bit of chatter and laughter.”
The facility is not a residential center, according to the New York Times, instead, the agency places children in temporary foster care.
On Thursday, children emerged from the building in hand-colored masks as they left with foster families. According to CNN, children who come to the center for classes and basic services have lice, chicken, pox and bed bugs, and some are in need of mental health services.
Nancy Sicardo, 55, lives around the corner from the Harlem center and tells PEOPLE she saw eight young children, including a toddler, being taken inside by adults around 10 p.m. on Monday.
“The kids were so scared, they yelled at them,” Sicardo says of the adults. “They were rushing them, saying in Spanish, ‘Come on, come on.’ They looked so afraid.’ ”
She says she was angry when she learned that most of the children are migrants who had been taken from their parents.
“These kids were under our noses the whole time. I went home and cried,” she says. “I think they should give these kids back to their parents. My heart is broken, I couldn’t imagine being separated from my family in a million years.”
The Cayuga Centers website states: “These children are placed in Spanish-speaking foster homes as they await reunification with a family member or sponsor, or return to the country of origin.”
However, one foster mother tells PEOPLE that a group of children she cares for had been at the Harlem center for months.
Cayuga Centers has two other facilities in New York as well as locations in Florida and Delaware.
On Wednesday, Donald Trump signed an executive order, reversing his administration’s policy on separating children from their parents when they illegally cross the border.
“We are keeping families together,” Trump said in the Oval Office, where he was joined by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Vice President Mike Pence.
The president’s remarks came amid an overwhelming backlash against the policy that has resulted in 2,342 children being separated from their parents since May after crossing the Southern U.S. border.
Trump initially blamed Democrats for the policy, calling it “their law.”
However, as The New York Times notes, there was actually never a law that says children must be taken away from their parents at the border. In fact, it was the Trump administration’s decision to prosecute asylum seekers who enter the U.S. at the border that has led to parents being sent into criminal custody and separated from their children.
- REPORTING by DIANE HERBST
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