In late December, Joana, her husband and 6- and 8-year-old daughters were put on a bus in Laredo, Texas, and sent to New York City. The family was part of Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s transfer of Central and South American asylum seekers to sanctuary cities including Chicago, Philadelphia, New York and Washington, D.C. that began in the summer of 2022.
Joana told Truthout that it took the family nearly two months to travel to the U.S. from their native Ecuador. “We did it,” she says in Spanish, her smile widening as she speaks. “We’re here. We suffered a lot in Ecuador, but I want my children to grow up and prosper and not have to struggle the way we did.”
As Joana talks, her daughters approach and hand her book after book, most but not all of them in Spanish. They’ve been told that they can each take 5 to 10 texts and are being guided to age-appropriate titles by staff at a book giveaway at their school, P.S. 33 (Chelsea Prep) in Manhattan. The event, held on a frigid Saturday in early February, was sponsored by two unions — The United Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of Teachers — and First Book, a national organization that has distributed more than 225 million free books since its 1992 founding.
“Right now, we’re living in a hotel room,” Joana said. “I don’t have a job, so I collect bottles and cans, but I’m looking for other work. My dream is to earn enough to move into an apartment.”
Edison, another parent at the book giveaway, was also bused to New York from Texas. Like Joana, he is from Ecuador and says that the economic situation there drove his family to make the arduous journey north. “Before the pandemic, I worked as a sales agent in a travel agency,” he told Truthout. “Then the business closed. I tried to support my wife and 7-year-old son by raising chickens and pigs, but I couldn’t earn enough. I am very thankful to be in New York; I’ve found work as an office cleaner. I want my son to succeed, to get a degree and do well, something that seems possible here.”
Joana and Edison are among the 47,000 asylum-seeking immigrants who have been bused into New York City over the past eight months.
Most are parents. According to a spokeswoman from the Department of Education, 13,200 school-aged kids enrolled in the city’s public schools between July 2022 and early February 2023. By all accounts, they have enormous material, social and emotional needs, and schools are scrambling to do what they can to provide them with everything from warm clothing to emotional support.
Although funding has been earmarked for the new arrivals through a city initiative called Project Open Arms that launched in August, the influx of immigrants is coming at a time of deep budget slashing, with cuts of $469 million hitting most of the city’s 1,859 schools this year alone. Many students now have access to fewer arts classes; special education students also report fewer sessions with speech and occupational therapists. In some schools, class size has also increased. What’s more, the fiscal 2024 budget, which takes effect in July, calls for $30.7 billion in education spending, a reduction from this year’s allocation of $31.2 billion. The reduction includes eliminating $567 million in funding for universal pre-K programs.
How Project Open Arms fits into the city’s program of austerity remains an open question.
On paper, the project sounds well-crafted, well-coordinated and comprehensive, promising wraparound services to give asylum-seeking families access to academic, social, emotional and ESL supports. As a joint initiative of the mayor, the Department of Education (DOE), the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs and the Department of Social Services, Project Open Arms pledges to provide up to $12 million a year, including $2,000 per student in schools that enroll six or more asylum-seeking students.
New York City Comptroller Brad Lander was an early critic of the plan, calling the sum grossly inadequate and estimating that the program needs at least $34 million to meet the newcomers’ language and psychological needs.
Teachers, activists, advocates and school administrators agree, making clear that more financial support is needed to enable the DOE to hire additional bilingual teachers, paraprofessionals, counselors, social workers and evaluators.
City Councilor Rita Joseph, chair of the Council’s Education Committee, describes this as easier said than done. “We need to acknowledge that since the pandemic began, there has been a general teacher shortage throughout the country. The shortage of bilingual teachers has existed for years, and while it may have gotten worse, it pre-dates COVID-19,” she told Truthout. Still, while Joseph says that she believes the city has gone “above and beyond” to welcome asylum seekers, she acknowledges that the effort has been far from perfect. “We know that some of the people who started the journey to the U.S, did not finish it. Kids and their parents have likely seen death. They’ve experienced trauma and we need to make sure they have access to trauma-informed counseling that is as humane as possible.”
Juan Cordova teaches in a bilingual third-, fourth- and fifth-grade transitional classroom at P.S. 33 that aims to help kids learn English and acclimate to life in the city. The first group of 15 asylum-seeking kids arrived from Texas in October, he tells Truthout; the second group of 17 arrived in December. They come from a host of countries including Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Mexico and Venezuela. “They have a lot of enthusiasm,” Cordova said. “But it is a big shock for them to see how schools in the U.S. are run. They have so many things to learn, a new language, new foods, a new climate and new rules. Most of them are living with their families in a hotel room without cooking facilities, so access to healthy meals is limited. The food we give them for breakfast and lunch is so different from what they’re used to. They’re not ready for tuna salad and vegan Fridays!”
In addition, many of the children came to New York without warm clothing, and while the school’s PTA and staff have raised money to provide the students and their families with winter coats, boots, toiletries and book bags, Cordova says that there are limits to what any school can provide. “These families need permanent housing, jobs and immigration authorization,” he says.
“People came in October wearing flip flops,” P.S. 33 Principal Cindy Wang told Truthout. “That was just one of the challenges. The parents tell us over and over again that they are hardworking and want to provide for their families. That’s the long-term challenge. The things they need are outside of what a school can do.”
“This is a very hard time for a lot of immigrants,” said Andrea Ortiz, the senior manager of education policy at the New York Immigration Coalition. “At the beginning, when the buses first started arriving, Mayor Adams said he wanted to welcome people.
But more recently, he has signaled that the city is being burdened and is at capacity.” Project Open Arms, she continues, was never adequately funded and it was clear from day one that it would not be able to provide incoming migrants with everything they need to succeed, Ortiz said. “The mayor and chancellor did not ensure that schools were properly resourced. People came to New York with nothing and the city can’t pass the buck. The mayor and the administration need to step up and not act as if this is a federal problem without local solutions.”
In addition, some schools have larger budgets than others, leading to an uneven ability to address the migrants’ needs, said Rita Rodriguez-Engberg, director of the immigrant student rights project at Advocates for Children of New York.
An administrative glitch further compounds the inequity. “For the school to get the $2,000 per student, the student needs to be living in temporary housing, a shelter or a hotel,” she told Truthout. “If a family living doubled or tripled up with friends or family does not report their living situation to the school, they might not be counted. I’d guess that 20 to 30 percent of new arrivals are not living in city-contracted temporary housing, so schools that are already under-resourced may not be getting the funding they should be getting.”
Equally disturbing, Rodriguez-Engberg says that despite lip service about “open arms,” students who need special education services are not receiving timely evaluations. The schools, she explains, are supposed to ask caregivers to consent to having their child examined, but because the DOE has too few bilingual evaluators, kids are falling through the cracks. “Some kids have gone five months without an evaluation,” and are not getting social and emotional support, instruction in daily living skills or therapies that are warranted, she said.
Furthermore, this neglect has a long history. According to Rodriguez-Engberg, “English language learners have historically been left behind, and while we, as a city, were unprepared for the number of new arrivals, the situation highlights longstanding problems with access to bilingual services and supports.”
That said, dedicated faculty, parents’ associations and a host of community-based organizations have stepped up to demand that the DOE do better while simultaneously trying to provide for the families. Middle School 50 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for example, is opening its kitchen to people living in shelters and temporary housing so that they can prepare the kinds of home-cooked meals they crave. Book giveaways and clothing and food drives have become also common.
The missing piece is trauma-informed counseling. Although everyone agrees that ignoring the social and emotional needs of asylum-seeking kids allows psychological problems to fester, the shortage of school-based bilingual counselors and therapists means that services are scant.
“In the best circumstances, where people arrive in a new place and have a secure place to live and the means to support themselves, immigration is difficult,” art therapist Nazarena Cordero told Truthout. “But if you have to cross a border, encounter setbacks, separate from relatives and friends, and then go from shelter to shelter with no idea what the future holds,” children can develop attachment and adjustment difficulties or post-traumatic stress disorder. This, she continues, may mean flashbacks, dissociation, hyper-vigilance and problems concentrating and focusing on schoolwork.
And although processing trauma can vary from person to person, family therapist Carol Hornbeck adds that what these kids have been through cannot be ignored. Nonetheless, she says that being with others who have had similar experiences can be extremely helpful. “Having a group of adults who are resilient and can guide the child is really important,” she told Truthout. “Being part of a group, having an identity that is linked to the survival of the community, can give kids a base to stand on.”
For Estephani Valdez, a transition teacher for 32 first-, second- and third-graders at Manhattan’s P.S. 33, being a good teacher requires creating community while simultaneously watching for manifestations of trauma. “I give the kids the love they need,” she told Truthout. “I do my best to provide them with emotional and foundational support. These kids share an incredible bond. They help each other. They work hard. They’re happy that they’re safe and able to be in school.”
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