New York schools accept thousands of immigrant children

This story is based on coverage for a piece “60 minutes”. It examined how New York City has dealt with an influx of migrants being bused into the city and some of the apparent problems with the asylum system that the crisis has exposed. Watch the 60 Minutes report in the player above.

NEW YORK — Ten-year-old Cesar said his favorite part of school in the US was the hot meals. Though he’s not a big fan of vegan Fridays, he said he enjoys the chicken and pizza served by the school.

In crisis-ridden Venezuela, Cesar said in Spanish, “There was no food, no money.”

When he’s not at PS 145, a public school on New York City’s Upper West Side, Cesar is reluctant to eat the salads and cold meals served at a converted Midtown Manhattan hotel that houses immigrant families, according to his father Ronny who said the family doesn’t have a microwave or fridge in their room.

Cesar’s family fought in New York. Ronny, whose surname is being withheld because he has a pending immigration case, said he has been unable to find work and his wife only works a few days a week at a fast-food restaurant. They also have to wait years to apply for asylum a huge backlog of court cases, and her next appointment with immigration officials is scheduled for 2024.

Ever since the family was moved from a hotel near Central Park to one on 51st Street in midtown Manhattan, Ronny said he’s been struggling to pay for the subway to take Cesar to school. But he said he is making every effort to ensure his son attends the school, which has offered Cesar hot meals and even a free haircut in addition to classroom instruction.

“They are very good people,” Ronny said of the school officials at PS 145, which looks after children who are eligible for preschool through elementary school grades. “It’s the only place he can get essentials.”

According to the city’s Department of Education, public schools in New York City have enrolled more than 7,200 children this year who have been placed with their parents in converted hotels or homeless shelters. While the department said it doesn’t track the students’ immigration status, most of the children are likely migrants who arrived in New York this year, often after being bused to Manhattan by officials in Texas.

The arrival of thousands of students who do not speak English, lack permanent legal status, live in shelters, need basic necessities, and have often made dangerous, traumatic journeys to get to the United States has shattered New York public schools City faced significant operational challenges.

But despite these challenges, migrant students have been welcomed with generosity and kindness by some educators, who help the young newcomers and their families in ways that go far beyond their school responsibilities.

PS 145 educators have provided migrant children with bilingual classes in English and Spanish, breakfast and lunch, school supplies, uniforms and after-school programs to help their parents find jobs, as well as free haircuts, iPads, laundry services, MetroCards and donations of clothes.

A teacher helps a student at PS 145, a public school on New York City's Upper West Side.  / Photo credit: CBS News

A teacher helps a student at PS 145, a public school on New York City’s Upper West Side. / Photo credit: CBS News

Natalia Russo, the director of PS 145, said her school has enrolled about 50 Latino migrant children since the summer, most of them from Venezuela. Earlier this year, the school also took in more than a dozen Ukrainian refugee children, who will be offered bilingual classes in English and Russian, Russo said.

“As long as they’re here in my building, we’re going to provide them with whatever we can, even if it’s laundry,” said Russo, a native New Yorker whose parents were born in Ecuador. “We will do whatever is necessary. Our employees will do whatever is necessary.”

When Russo learned that migrants taking buses to New York were staying at certain hotels across the city, she dispatched her school’s community coordinator, Juan Abreu, to find out if families needed help getting children enrolled in school . Abreu said the need was apparent when he arrived at a hotel near Central Park.

“It was just a mess,” Abreu recalled, noting that none of the parents he met knew how to enroll their children in school. “There were a lot of questions that I couldn’t really answer at that point.”

Abreu has also ensured that newly arrived migrant children have winter clothing, from coats and long-sleeved sweaters to gloves and hats. He set up a scheme for teachers to wash migrant families’ clothes and has even helped some parents find temporary jobs in the city.

While Abreu noted that technically his responsibilities don’t extend beyond enrolling children in school, he said he’s committed to helping them in many other ways because he identifies with them. Born in the Dominican Republic, he immigrated to the United States at the age of four. Abreu said he lived in a homeless shelter in New York City for about three years after his mother was a victim of domestic violence.

“Looking at the kids, I remember when I was that age,” Abreu said. “And I know I didn’t have the most help. I felt like I didn’t belong. And I don’t want the kids to feel like they don’t belong.”

Juan Abreau meets with Natalia Russo at New York's PS 145. / Photo credit: CBS News

Juan Abreau meets with Natalia Russo at New York’s PS 145. / Credit: CBS News

Since 1982, a landmark Supreme Court ruling has allowed immigrant children to attend U.S. K-12 public schools regardless of legal status. The decision in this case, known as Plyler v. Doe, concluded that denying migrant children access to public education violates the US Constitution.

In May, the Republican Governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, who had been buses Migrants to New York City and other Democrat-run cities to oppose the Biden administration’s border policies suggested that he reverse the Plyler v. Doe would contest, citing “extraordinary” spending related to raising migrant children. But Texas has yet to formally issue such a challenge.

The New York City Department of Education said it couldn’t calculate the total cost of the city’s effort to accommodate immigrant students, dubbed Project Open Arms, because it’s a multi-agency initiative. But the department said it has allocated $12 million to schools that take in migrant children.

“School counselors and social workers are working closely with families, and our central team continues to work with superintendents and principals to provide additional resources and support as needed,” the department said in a statement. “We have established additional bilingual transition programs in schools as needed to provide teachers in the languages ​​most needed.”

Russo, the principal of PS 145, said one of the “unintended consequences” of her school’s efforts to help migrant children has been criticism that she and other educators gave them preferential treatment or in some way encouraged others to immigrate to the United States and the border crossing the southern border unlawfully.

But Russo said she is focused on addressing the immediate needs of children and families who lack significant support systems in the United States

This week, Russo is hosting a Thanksgiving dinner at a local synagogue for the families of her school’s children who live in converted hotels or homeless shelters. She asked school staff and community members for help buying decorations for the event and preparing 10 turkeys. A volunteer attorney, Russo added, is also reviewing the immigration cases of some families with children enrolled with PS 145.

Russo expressed concern that her school could continue to support migrant families long-term without additional support. But she said ignoring her struggle is not an option.

“I don’t have the legal or moral authority to say, ‘You don’t belong here,'” Russo said.

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