Advocates from Empire Justice Center’s Long Island office recently met with a wide range of local advocacy and social services organizations under the leadership of the Long Island Health and Welfare Council and the Hagedorn Foundation. The meeting was arranged to brainstorm strategies for responding to the needs of the thousands of unaccompanied minor children from Central America arriving on Long Island. This loose affiliation very shortly became the Long Island Immigrant Children’s Project. At the initial meeting, we created three work groups to focus on provision of legal representation, mental health services and support, and education advocacy with school districts to ensure registration and enrollment. Shortly after thereafter, the Hagedorn Foundation formed a Long Islander Funders Collaborative with the Long Island Community Foundation, Long Island Unitarian Universalist Fund, Rauch Foundation, and the Sisters of St. Joseph to develop funding for the Project.
In early May, Project advocates reconvened to report on the activities of their workgroups and plot a path forward in preparation for a second wave of unaccompanied children while still grappling with the needs of the first wave. The Project has made a remarkable amount of accomplishments so far, but there are still many challenges that need to be faced. Here’s what the workgroups have been able to accomplish so far:
Anne Erickson, President & CEO of Empire Justice Center, participated in the initial conversations discussing possible sources of funding for Long Island. The LI Funders Collaborative, including Empire Justice and consisting of foundations that have long supported legal services and social justice agencies, amassed an initial $125,000. The Collaborative gave grants to Catholic Charities, CARECEN, Safe Passage, and Touro Law Center to increase capacity to provide legal services to recently arrived children. These dollars were leveraged by $50,000 from the New York State Office for New Americans. An additional $400,000 grant from the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock permitted Hofstra and Touro Law Centers, CARECEN, and Catholic Charities to hire additional attorneys and paralegals for intake and representation.
Legal Services Workgroup
As a result of this new infusion of funding, LI organizations will be able to represent most of the children in deportation proceedings in US Immigration Court, and some of those children or family members are also being represented at Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) guardianship hearing s in Family Court. Empire Justice Center has one full-time immigration attorney, Jackeline Saavedra, and receives additional help with client representation from the Touro Law Center Immigration Clinic attorney. CARECEN and Catholic Charities are each doing 15 intakes a week, and Make the Road has started taking cases as well.
The LI organizations are greatly aided by programs in New York City that staff the initial intakes at U.S. Immigration Court in Manhattan. There are also attorneys who will take referrals on asylum cases for kids not eligible for SIJS. This collaborative work permits all of the organizations to increase their caseload.
Even with these great strides, organizations are still not able to meet current needs, and are exploring how to somehow link or refer clients to pro bono or private pay immigration attorneys.
The Education workgroup, including Empire Justice attorney Linda Hassberg, has focused on school districts that illegally prevent children from enrolling and/or fail to offer them appropriate placement and opportunity to pursue degree programs. At least in part due to the group’s advocacy efforts, both the New York State Education Department (SED) and the New York State Office of the Attorney General’s (AG) got involved and have been instrumental in enforcing enrollment mandates and proper programing. They’ve provided new regulation, community meetings, investigations, and settlement agreements between the AG and several school districts.
The very fact that state officials have reached out to us to collaborate is very encouraging and much has been accomplished.
There are still big gaps in our ability to reach, inform, and provide assistance and support to families experiencing problems with school enrollment and programming. We haven’t been successful in getting SED to mandate that enrollment, residency, and program information be provided in languages other than English, even though it’s required by Title VI. Some LI school districts are doing a good job and the AG can be an ally in encouraging others to interact more meaningfully with LEP communities, but this remains a big challenge.
Mental Health Services Workgroup
This workgroup, including Empire Justice Social Worker Paralegal Cheryl Keshner, reported an expansion of services. This includes some capacity to address the issues of Spanish-speaking children, but the majority of recently arrived kids are not getting the support they need. Many have suffered trauma and their parents and other caregivers are struggling just to integrate them into their households and support them financially. Although the group cited a lack of overall capacity, there was also discussion about families’ reluctance to access mental health services because of the stigma, and families’ lack of time and energy. Many parents/guardians are working 2-3 jobs, have transportation problems, and need to care for their whole family.
We talked about overlap between education and mental health. Although it wouldn’t address the entire problem, making use of referrals for special education for students with emotional disabilities, and connecting to funded programs in Nassau and Suffolk Counties that provide school and community based youth services would help. For education and mental health outreach, involving faith-based programs and leadership, as well as ESL teachers and other school personnel who work with these families.
Project advocates are energized by these meetings, and feel that they accomplished a great deal in the months since the first forum. Clearly, there remain many large issues that will require dedicated resources, creative collaboration, and hard work to tackle. There are predictions that a second wave of unaccompanied Central American children will come to Long Island this summer. We’re now concentrating on solidifying the progress that's been made, reaching out to more families and children in need, and continuing to convene the workgroups to strategize about new methods of addressing problems. We here at Empire Justice Center look forward to working with this dynamic group!