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From New York to LA, Housing Insecurity Is Undermining Immigrant Students

NYC’s new policy of evicting families from shelters after 60 days is forcing children to repeatedly switch schools.

A migrant mother rushes her family past a small group of right-wing demonstrators trying to shut down a motel that is housing migrant immigrants, on May 30, 2023, in Queens, New York.

When New York City Mayor Eric Adams issued a notice to asylum-seeking families in January informing them that they would be evicted from temporary shelters after a 60-day stay, they were told that “intensive case management” would be available to help them achieve economic self-sufficiency. In making this pronouncement, Adams ignored the city’s 43-year-old “right to shelter” law, a policy that guarantees temporary housing to all unhoused people who need it.

Unsurprisingly, the help that Adams promised has not materialized.

According to a report issued by City Comptroller Brad Lander in early May, “notices given to families, training for staff, and written guidelines were all inadequate…. Investigators found that the city provides very limited case management services that do little to help asylum-seeking families … and specifically discriminated against families of elementary-school-aged children in shelter placements, making it more likely that their schooling would be disrupted.”

Calling the process “haphazard,” Lander further lambasted the Adams administration for undermining the education of the more than 36,000 migrant children who have enrolled in the city’s public schools since spring 2022. The critique further stressed that while families can apply for additional 60-day placements, the constant movement from shelter to shelter can lead to heightened emotional distress and anxiety.

“Schools should provide kids with a sense of belonging,” Nazarena Cordero, an art therapist who specializes in treating children, told Truthout. “This feeling is impaired when a student does not have the stability of a routine. Being forced to move every few months impacts children’s ability to learn and integrate into a new society. It puts kids in a constant state of crisis. Kids need to feel welcomed, made to feel like they belong and are connected. Constantly being uprooted from the place they’re trying to sow seeds makes them feel alienated, marginalized, and creates a negative ripple effect in all areas of learning, including social and emotional development.”

Teachers and school staff agree. Jeanette Frazier, community school director at Central Park East II (CPE II), a public school in New York’s East Harlem, works with 92 immigrant students — nearly a quarter of CPE II’s student body — enrolled in pre-K through 8th grade. “When they arrive, many of the kids are traumatized,” she told Truthout. “We let everyone, children and adults, share their experiences. Many of their stories are horrific.”

Several students told Frazier about having to hide from La Migra (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) when crossing into Costa Rica, and numerous parents confided that they hid their children high up in the trees where monkeys scratched their faces. “Some of the kids still have scars. These are the traumas they live with,” she said. “We let them talk, try to help them feel safe. Overall, I am in awe of how both the kids and the adults are able to flourish despite what they’ve been through.”

Communication, she adds, is often tricky. Although the school has 10 bilingual Spanish-English speakers on staff, most are Dominican or Puerto Rican. “Spanish varies by country and, at times, we have had to use Google Translate to understand one another.”

There are other challenges as well. Frazier reports that about 30 percent of the nonmigrant students at the Central Park East II school are living doubled up or in shelters. “We want to be a hub for families,” she said, a place where people can get clothing, breakfast, lunch and sometimes supper during the week and during school breaks. “We understand that some people can’t get SNAP benefits because of their legal status.”

And what of the 60-day rule? “Most of the families choose to remain in the school, when they are forced to move, rather than enrolling their kids in a new program, even if there is a school closer to where they’re living. They take trains and buses to get here,” Frazier said. “One family was moved from Manhattan to Far Rockaway, Queens. They need to get up at 5 am to arrive at CPE II by 8.”

“Kids need to feel welcomed, made to feel like they belong and are connected. Constantly being uprooted from the place they’re trying to sow seeds makes them feel alienated, marginalized, and creates a negative ripple effect.”

But even when kids have shorter commutes, she continues, their parents’ anxiety gets transmitted. “One mom noticed that her 9-year-old had resumed wetting the bed,” she said. “When parents receive an eviction notice, they typically take their children with them to get a new placement. They’re afraid that if they get transferred in the middle of the day, they’ll be unable to pick up their kids from school on time and will lose them [to the child welfare system].”

Jose J., a bilingual teacher at an elementary school in the Bronx, calls the 60-day rule “massively disruptive.” (Jose asked that his surname not be used due to fear of administrative reprisals.) He told Truthout:

The kids are dealing with the shock of a new environment, and while there is a lot of gratitude, a lot of joy, they know that their parents are having a hard time navigating a new language, a new city and a whole new system of being…. Many went through arduous journeys and talk about seeing dead bodies in the jungle. They talk about the mud that would get into their boots. No matter how hard they tried, they couldn’t remove it. They tell me how much their feet hurt as they walked.

When they are evicted from their shelters — especially if it involves going to a new school — Jose reports that they become upset. He said:

They cry. They don’t want to leave, but they have no agency. This adds to the layers of trauma they bring with them. These students come from different countries — Colombia, Ecuador, Guinea, Venezuela and Russia — but they become friends. When they have to leave, it hurts everyone — those who stay and those who go. Building relationships is at the heart of putting the pieces together, and when the relationships break, it is devastating.

Stopping a Humanitarian Disaster

Lawmakers know this, and some are working to reverse Mayor Adams’s temporary housing dictate. Brooklyn City Councilmember Shahana Hanif is one of the most outspoken opponents of the eviction policy and calls the 60-day rule a “humanitarian disaster.”

“The policy tells newcomers that the city does not want them here. The message is that they don’t belong,” she told Truthout.

What’s more, she continues, while a city law prohibits forcing a child to change schools if they move from one neighborhood to another, the logistics of staying can be daunting. “If you are moved into a shelter in Jamaica, Queens, for example, and your child is attending school in central Brooklyn, it can take two-plus hours each way,” she said. “This is not sustainable,” she told Truthout, adding that this reality helps explain why school attendance records show that this year alone, approximately 1,000 students have “gone missing” from the public school they initially enrolled in.

As she speaks, Hanif’s incredulity and rage are audible and she reports that her constituents are shocked that she, as a city councilmember, has been unable to track where these students have gone or stop the evictions.

But this is not to say that she has thrown up her hands. In addition to speaking at rallies, community events and forums, Hanif has introduced a bill to amend the city’s administrative code to bar city agencies from “imposing length of shelter stay restrictions in a shelter of any type.” The bill has 19 cosponsors, wide public support and is currently pending in the council’s Committee on General Welfare.

Other Cities Offer Better Models

Hanif and her colleagues are also looking at how other cities and school systems have handled newly arrived asylum seekers with school-aged children.

Marion Tizón is the director of the Office of Latine Achievement, which is responsible for supporting newly arrived immigrant students in Minneapolis public schools. The office has worked with 2,600 such students since July 2023, many of whom reach Minneapolis via the southern borders of California or Texas, or arrive by bus from Chicago or New York.

About 30 percent of the nonmigrant students at the Central Park East II school are living doubled up or in shelters.

Once people are placed in one of a handful of shelters in Hennepin County, where Minneapolis is located, Tizón says, “There is no time limit on how long they can stay, but the shelters are past double capacity.” Overflow shelters, she continued, provide additional rooms, and more than 100 students currently reside in a Holiday Inn in suburban Bloomington.

But they will soon have to move. Tizón reports that by fall, a zoning change will bar the hotel from housing asylum-seeking families and force the city to move residents into Minneapolis. “Although the McKinney-Vento program for homeless students requires the provision of transportation so that unhoused kids can get to and from school, getting from Minneapolis to a school in Bloomington can take 30 or 40 minutes each way,” Tizón told Truthout; she fears that this will push students to switch schools, upending the relationships that were built during the 2023-24 academic year.

And that’s not the only issue facing students. Like her New York City counterparts, Tizón notes that other factors complicate school enrollment for new arrivals. “Most Minneapolis schools have in-house counseling available,” she said, “but the number of bilingual counselors is insufficient. The kids, especially those who crossed the Darién Gap — a remote, roadless, 60-mile stretch between Colombia and Panama — need good bilingual counseling. They are still processing everything they went through and are typically struggling when they arrive.”

Adult family members are also impacted and are additionally tasked with trying to access medical care and housing. “Both are ridiculously expensive,” Tizón said. “Asylum seekers usually don’t have a bank account, a Social Security number, or a credit card. They have to use cash to pay for everything. This means no access to Lyft or Uber, services other people without cars rely on, since neither accepts cash.”

Moreover, she said that even if folks succeed in getting a room in a shelter or a hotel, the support they’ll receive is paltry. “People end up in the informal economy, selling candy or fruit on street corners,” she said. “They’re then vulnerable to traffickers eager to recruit them into exploitative situations.”

“When they have to leave, it hurts everyone — those who stay and those who go. Building relationships is at the heart of putting the pieces together, and when the relationships break, it is devastating.”

Interrupted schooling is another predictable result. Tizón says the Office of Latine Achievement aims to mentor the students, run affinity groups, and offer Spanish-language social and emotional learning workshops. “We sponsor programs — camps — during school breaks and coordinate virtual sessions for parents once a month. The goal is to teach them how education works in Minneapolis, informing them about everything from standardized assessments to summer enrichment opportunities,” she said. “We also do professional development for teachers and staff to help them better protect and honor multilingual learners. But so much more is needed” to prepare teachers and help families get settled, she added.

Needless to say, New York and Minneapolis are not alone in this conclusion.

Los Angeles Teachers Union Pushes for Hard Data

Maria Miranda, vice president of elementary schools at United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) told Truthout that despite the 2023 formation of a joint labor management committee to support immigrant students and families, the union has been unable to force the district to provide UTLA with requested demographic data about the thousands of newly arrived students they’re serving, data that includes which languages are spoken at home and how many are living doubled up or in hotels or shelters. “The district includes more than 900 schools, pre-K to 12th grade. Many of the schools have Dream Centers for undocumented students to help them access resources, get college information and talk to someone. The newcomers arrive with lots of needs. This is urgent, and not being able to get the district to answer our questions makes it harder for us to work with the attendance counselors to track the kids and provide necessary services and supports,” Miranda said.

High school-based psychiatric social worker Martha Melendez works with new arrivals who are between the ages of 14 and 17. “Most of the kids who come from Central America crossed multiple borders by foot. Some have a history of trauma that stems from violence in their home country. Others were raped, subjected to extortion or robbed on their journey north. Some traveled with parents or a friend, but others came to the U.S. alone, unaccompanied,” she told Truthout. “The majority are now staying with relatives or friends, but a small percentage are in shelters where the length of stay depends on the individual shelter’s policy. Almost all, I’d say 90 percent, were detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement before being released to their sponsors. They all need help.”

For many of the teens she works with, Melendez says that consistent school attendance is impossible. “Most of these teens are facing financial stress,” she said. “They may have to send money home to pay the coyote [smuggler] who helped them get to the U.S. The fee can be $10,000. They also need to pay an immigration attorney to help them apply for asylum. That can be another $10,000. On top of this, they need to pay for food, a phone and housing. When it comes to priorities, if they have to choose between finishing school and paying bills, school falls away.”

For those able to attend classes, UTLA-created Dream Centers are available to provide academic and emotional support — as well as condoms, hygiene supplies, and referrals to medical, dental and optical care.

“It’s not enough,” she told Truthout. “These students risk their lives to come here. English is often their third language. Schools should be safe places where they can be kids, eat breakfast and lunch, learn and make friends. We always hear that youth are resilient, and asylum-seeking youth certainly prove the point. They’re hardworking and determined, but they deserve much more than they’re getting.”

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