It is Time for New York City to Take a Stand and Protect Its Immigrant Youth
“Aiya! Never! Not there!”
Margaret and I are looking at a map of the United States, pointing out the cities which she may one day call home. As the victim of human trafficking, forced to work in restaurants in the Midwest from the age of thirteen, Margaret may be eligible to receive foster care assistance through a federal program for child trafficking victims. Her face turns pale as we come across Phoenix, Arizona and she quickly exclaims she’d rather return to sixteen hour days in a burning hot kitchen than be shipped to the square-shaped state that brings her such fear. She’d like to remain in New York, she states, as people are nicer here, “well, sometimes outside mean, but inside nice” she tells me in her native Mandarin. But no, definitely not Arizona, “too scary” she exclaims. America has officially become dangerous for newcomers to our nation like Margaret and if Arizona has become the state of intolerance, then it is time for New York to be a safe haven for acceptance and equality before such extreme brutality explodes here as well.
Violence, both directly executed through hate crimes and turned inwardly through self-harm, is on the rise for New York immigrant populations. Fearing more blood to be shed, on December 18th, 2010, the day the Dream Act was defeated in the Senate, I braced myself to return to work and share the news with Annie. Annie, an extremely bright girl with tightly braided hair, is an eighteen year old high school senior and a client of mine at The Door, a youth development agency where I practice law and run the Immigrant Youth Peer Educator Program. She was brought to the U.S. at the age of eight from the Dominican Republic and we’d been talking about the Dream Act all year. When the Senate crushed the opportunity for undocumented youth to receive a chance (yes I say “chance,” because the requirements are so many that many American citizen youth wouldn’t even qualify) to remain in the country, all I could think of were the scars gracing the pale skin under Annie’s wrists; like a growing number of undocumented youth, blanketed by despair, Annie had tried to end her own life. Though her determination to succeed was growing stronger each day, I worried the Dream Act’s defeat would make her again believe that suicide was the only future worth embracing. Annie is a reminder that violence is a tool used by those wishing harm not only with force, but indirectly through the slow death of hope.
I work with countless immigrant youth who want to better not only their lives but also those of their neighbors and friends in the country they call home. My clients are students at Hunter College, training to become police to protect our city’s streets, performing poetry at Nuyorican café, and advocating for homeless youth on the steps of city hall. These extraordinary children are those criminalized in our media, the victims targeted with hate crimes, and the subjects of dehumanizing laws. The events of this past month, the defeat of crucial legislation, the proposed changes to our Constitution, and finally the shootings of a Congresswoman and a Judge who opposed the most restrictive of American immigration laws, cause youth to give up on the promises of change they can bring to American society. And by attacking our immigrant youth we are simply harming ourselves.
For the country’s future, helping immigrant youth is not just a question of survival but victory. Harnessing the gifts undocumented youth bring to America may be our best hope in winning the global economic competition. The world is on the precipice of change and the U.S. is poised to lose the hard fought gains won over centuries. Immigrant youth give the U.S. the ability to position itself above countries whose monochromatic approach to diversity is no match for the fabric upon which the American Dream was built.
But what can New York do as a city so rich in the resources our immigrants bring? On December 18th, I felt momentarily defeated but now I am galvanized as New York is not only a state of immigrants, but one of change and through American history New York has been a beacon of activism and hope. From Martin Luther King’s speech on the steps of Riverside church to the suffragette marches of 1912 to the treating of AIDS patients long before the country acknowledged the epidemic, New York has not only supported but has actively fought for populations the rest of America preferred to ignore. Immigrant youth are not the first group radicals have refused to recognize as full human beings but today they are perhaps the most in need of protection.
This protection is imperative. With counselors, lawyers, and case managers at The Door, Annie is getting better; yet there are hundreds like her slipping between our fingers each day. Many youth are eligible for legal status in the U.S. but due to ignorance they miss out on the remedies, such as Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, available to them. Those on the ground working with youth – foster care workers, homeless shelter case managers, teachers and judges – must educate themselves about options available to the next generation. Currently New York is desperate for lawyers, counselors, teachers and case managers who will take up this cause as well as professors who are active about teaching classes on these issues; those who profess a desire to devote themselves to public service simply must become conversational in languages other than English to communicate with those most in need. For those unable to enter the front lines of the battle there are a plethora of organizations doing incredible work with the most limited of resources in need of money and time from those passionate and fortunate enough to be able to give. New York government has been helpful for immigrant youth, Senator Gillibrand was a large supporter of the Dream Act and the City Council has passed measures for youth in care, but voters must lend their voices to those without and demand lawmakers make this issue a priority. Finally, the rhetoric of fear must be stopped, hate crimes denounced, and respect given as a city united against bigotry and fear.
The American people have so much to gain, and lose, depending on how the issue of undocumented youth is confronted. With SB 1070, the outlawing of Mexican American studies and the inflaming unfounded panic about the reprehensibly named “Anchor Baby Phenomenon” it has become clear that Arizona is leading the country in bigotry and hatred. Now is the time for New York to provide the opposite approach. These children are the future and the future is, quite literally, being attacked. New York, as a city and a state, must fight back and support its immigrant youth in danger of elimination from the throes of a society so desperately in need of the change they can bring. The great novelist Thomas Wolfe once wrote, “one belongs to New York instantly, one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years.” It is time for New York to rise to its heritage of inclusiveness and strength in the name of Margaret and Annie and all youth who make the fabric of American society so sturdy and so great.
Lauren A. Burke, Esq
Skadden Fellow and Staff Attorney at The Door: A Center for Alternatives. Founder of the Immigrant Youth Peer Educator Program.