How NYC is supporting thousands of asylum-seeking children

Teachers, nonprofit workers and volunteers are mobilizing to help children adjust to a completely new environment.

Mayor Eric Adams greets asylum seekers in Port Authority back in early August.

Mayor Eric Adams greets asylum seekers in Port Authority back in early August. New York City Mayoral Photography Office

Like many people who have stood in the Port Authority bus terminal to welcome newly arrived asylum-seekers over the past couple of months, New York City Council Member Shahana Hanif recalled seeing many school-age children who were “terrified, without shoes and in need of tremendous hope, care and compassion.”

Calling for additional money to support these children, Hanif recently underscored a sentiment that has circulating since it became apparent just how many kids were among the influx of new arrivals: “For every classroom that they enter we must assure them that they will be healed of their trauma of having walked terrible violent terrain to then be welcomed at the southern border with violence,” she said, standing beside immigrant advocates during a rally on Oct. 31.

As the nation’s largest public school system continues to integrate more than 7,000 students from migrant families into classrooms this school year, educators, city officials and nonprofits have grappled with finding the best ways to support the influx of children.

That means enlisting additional hands – volunteers and bilingual professionals – as well as having sensitivity and compassion in creating plans to ensure they have clothes, food and other vital supplies. Over the past few months, community members, educators and elected officials have mobilized through the formation of volunteer “borough response teams” as well as a host of other grassroots efforts that have gathered donations and shouldered additional work to wrap asylum-seeking families into school communities. In addition to a sweeping multiagency effort called Project Open Arms to enroll school-age children and provide them and their families with resources, the city also recently announced that it will send an additional $2,000 for every homeless student that has been enrolled since July 2 to schools with at least six children living in temporary housing. According to the city, the funding is intended to go toward additional tutoring, after-school programs, personal items, and bilingual support – though it can’t be used to hire full-time staff, according to budget documents obtained by Chalkbeat New York.

The New York City school system is facing a significant challenge: Migrant children, the vast majority of whom are believed to be seeking asylum from Latin America, have limited English proficiency and come with varying degrees of educational experience. Even getting to the southern border of the U.S. is dangerous – both physically and emotionally – and children are particularly vulnerable along the route. Many are now living in transitional housing after surviving significant trauma from before and during their journey to New York City. And while the city’s schools have long served immigrant children and those living in shelters, the sheer number of new arrivals this year is unprecedented, and many schools are struggling to hire enough bilingual teachers and social workers.

While 369 schools will benefit from the city’s plan to send an additional $2,000 per student, with schools receiving an average budget boost of $31,713, according to Chalkbeat, many immigrant advocates said it wasn’t enough to fully support migrant children.

“I really do appreciate the welcoming tone that the Department of Education has set and has said we are going to welcome all of these kids into our schools and see them as fellow classmates,” New York City Comptroller Brad Lander said at a rally Monday morning. “That is good, but it must go along with the resources necessary to help schools meet these kids' needs.”

In a budget analysis published Oct. 18, Lander said schools should receive at least an additional $34 million to support migrant students based on the Fair Student Funding formula, which provides schools with the bulk of their yearly budget. The formula allocates a baseline amount to every school based on enrollment and then adds dollars for each student with additional needs, such as a disability or if they are learning English as a second language. Overall enrollment in public schools has gone down, and those schools saw their budgets reduced as a result. But with the enrollment of migrant students, advocates argued that those schools need more money now – and according to city officials, schools are getting an additional $25 million through Fair Student Funding. Unlike the formula, which is typically finalized at the end of October, the additional $2,000 for eligible students is separate, meaning schools can receive that sum even if their enrollment grows later in the school year.

Schools have been affected by the influx of students in a variety of ways. Brooklyn’s P.S. 124, which had budgeted for 215 total students, gained over 35 migrant children as of October given its close proximity to two family shelters. (Children living in shelters are assigned to schools nearby, meaning only some of the schools have taken in migrant students.) According to Lander, P.S. 124 school leaders hired a temporary guidance counselor but had yet to receive additional funding or hire bilingual support.

Having bilingual staff in place to support migrant children is important beyond the obvious academic repercussions. Win, New York City’s largest provider of family shelters, has scrambled to hire Spanish-speaking staff to adequately meet the need, according to the organization’s president and CEO, Christine Quinn. Last month, she said she’s worried that families won’t be comfortable speaking about the traumas they’ve endured.

“If we don’t know what the traumas are, then we won’t know how to pull a team together,” she said. “These refugees are going to need more than basic (mental health) services. Many of them may have seen family members killed right in front of them, many of them may be survivors of multiple sexual assaults – that worries me. We have to make sure that the city responds in a way that goes beyond just the basics which we don’t even have.”

Given the isolation that comes with not being native English speakers, advocates have fought to ensure migrant students are placed in schools with bilingual instructors. These schools, they argued, were the best place for these children because they’ll be able to become friends with one another, learn better and be with educators equipped to assess their social and emotional needs.

At P.S. 145 on the Upper West Side, the school has taken in 45 Spanish-speaking migrant students and 10-12 Russian-speaking children displaced from the war in Ukraine, according to Naveed Hasan, a parent and chair of the multilingual committee for the school district’s local education council. He told City & State there was a coalition of school administrators, teachers and parents – many of whom are immigrants themselves – supporting these students. Still, only so much can be done without more money.

“We don’t forget so easily because it was our personal experience. We want to pay it forward and do what we can, but there’s only so much you can do with volunteer energy,” Hasan said. “Because the need and the demands are so great, that’s where resources like financial and staffing resources can really help. And we need them to be permanent.”

When Lauren Balaban, a school parent and PTA vice president of fundraising, learned that the principal had volunteered P.S. 145 to open its doors to migrant students this year, she and others on the PTA put out a call for donations. Within a few days, they had to stop to streamline things as the sheer volume of clothing and supplies had filled the school’s atrium. She said that sort of mobilization has continued: When teachers learned some of their students have struggled to do their laundry because they don’t have access to a machine, they started doing it for families on the weekends. When the school year started and they didn’t have a Spanish-speaking social worker, school volunteers knocked on doors to try and find one, succeeding after six weeks of outreach.

“It’s a very unique situation. … Most of the shelters, they only let you stay for so long, and then they shuffle people around. So we are building this safety net in this community for them and at any time they could relocate,” Balaban said. “We are just trying to do as much as we can while they are with us.”