On a hot, dusty summer day in the South Bronx, a small crowd gathered at a local church and community center, spilling into the street to escape the muggy air inside. By 8:30 AM, an hour and a half before our second Youth Assistance Fair of the summer was set to start, over a hundred recently arrived minors, mainly from Honduras, and their family members had already appeared. New York has received the second highest number of children from the surge at the border, with only Texas seeing more children being resettled within its boundaries. So far, we are over 4,000, all of whom have settled in NYC, the lower Hudson Valley, and Long Island. If predictions are accurate, we are on track to receive 8,000 or more total by the end of the year.
The Bronx event, the second in an ongoing series set to take place in and around New York City for at least the rest of the year, was conceived as a way to holistically address the needs of the unaccompanied children arriving here since the beginning of 2014. In addition to a legal clinic, which offers free screenings to every child and family member who attend and who have not yet appeared in immigration court, attendees can meet with a variety of city, state, and non-profi t agencies and learn of the services available to them.
The New York City Department of Education, the Administration for Children Services, the Human Resources Administration, and Healthy New York are some of the participating city agencies and are on hand to offer information on school enrollment, health insurance, public benefits families may qualify for. In addition, we have many community-based organizations and non-profits offer social services, including resources for victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse, and other, more typically child-appropriate issues.
At our first event, in downtown Manhattan in late July, information was handed out on a soccer league that welcomes unaccompanied minors every Saturday. At our Bronx event, Terra Firm, a medical-legal partnership at Montefiore Hospital geared towards unaccompanied minors, gave out information on where children could receive free mental health services. The initial event grew out of a planned DACA clinic, and was hastily transformed into the first Youth Assistance Fair in late July after the first set of released numbers revealed the impact of the surge on New York.
Future events have been designed to compliment the legal screenings set up in immigration court, where the five organizations who ha ve traditionally handled the juvenile dockets have worked to assure a presence in court at each priority docket – sometimes up to four dockets a day. Children screened in court do not receive a legal screening at the community events, although they are able to access all other information and services. Of the nearly 200 children who asked to speak to a lawyer in the Bronx, however, only one had already been screened in court. None of the children who sought legal services in Manhattan had been screened before.
Ultimately, nearly 350 people came to the Bronx event, and nearly 200 to the one in Manhattan. Fairs are being scheduled in Brooklyn and Long Island in September, and plans are underway to return to the Bronx and schedule one in Queens and one in Westchester County in October. The strength of the community events, beyond the ability to bring a variety of services and information to compliment the legal screenings, is the sense of trust and comfort that is promoted by taking place in the community. Children played in the Bronx street, shut down for the day, while their parents dragged plastic chairs under the shade of the few trees. A table with paper, crayons, and a few toys was set up for younger kids. Church volunteers handed out sandwiches, watermelon slices, and cool water bottles to all who had come.
As the day’s activities wound down, they began making empanadas for everyone as well. And to volunteers, the experiences can be as meaningful as they are challenging. Far from the front lines at Artesia and the Southern Border, it is nonetheless rewarding to know that these children are not only armed with enough knowledge to speak up in court, but are also cared for in all other aspects of their lives.
Written by Camille Mackler, Co-Media Liaison, AILA New York City Chapter