Damien, age 5, was giddy with excitement as he left a Manhattan homeless shelter, sometimes running and skipping along the sidewalk accompanied by his wistful mother, a migrant from Ecuador.
"What I want for him is a future," Kimberly Carchipulla said in Spanish of her son, one of nearly 800,000 New York City public school students who headed off to class Thursday for their first day of the new school year.
That is what school officials want, too, as the city's classrooms work to accommodate nearly 20,000 migrant children newly arrived in the U.S. — a number that could swell as record numbers of families cross the border from Mexico in hopes of gaining asylum.
Several major U.S. cities have struggled with an influx of many thousands of asylum seekers who have filled up homeless shelters after entering the U.S.
New York City's shelter system has been especially overwhelmed, but Mayor Eric Adams has sought to reassure parents and community groups that the city's nearly 1,900 schools — which have a long track record of welcoming immigrants with limited English skills — are well prepared to welcome migrant children into classrooms.
The huge public schools system has around 3,400 teachers licensed to teach English as a second language and more than 1,700 certified bilingual teachers fluent in Spanish, the language spoken by the majority of migrant families, according to Education Chancellor David C. Banks. Some schools expected to get a higher share of students living in shelters are getting more funding, with $110 million allocated for immediate needs.
"We are welcoming all these new migrant students into our schools with open arms," Banks said Thursday during a first-day-of-school ceremony at a Bronx public school. "We know it's a larger political issue and the mayor and others have to deal with. But when they show up in our schools, they're going to get the best that we have."
That's encouraging news for Carchipulla and her son.
In his calmer moments as he headed off to school, Damien worried whether he'd be able to understand his teacher or easily make friends.
For the past two months, his family has been living in a room at Manhattan's historic Roosevelt Hotel, which after years of being closed was converted into a city-run shelter this year for newly arrived migrants hoping to find work and a better life for their children.
Carchipulla's immediate worry was getting Damien to class early, traveling by city bus and foot to reach his school 75 blocks away in East Harlem. Scores of other families gathered at the school's gates waiting to be let in.
In recent weeks, his mother, 22, has vacillated between elation and worry, especially fretting over her son's ability to keep pace with his classmates. And she hopes there are good teachers at her son's new school, teachers who will be kind and patient.
It's been a hard few months for the family after leaving relatives behind in their small Ecuadorian city about 100 miles (161 kilometers) south of the country's largest city, Guayaquil. In recent months, Ecuador has struggled with growing violence and political instability.
"We came to a place where we don't have family. It was hard. There were days where I cried because they were hard and difficult days because I knew that I wasn't going to go back to my family," Carchipulla said. Nonprofits such as New Immigrant Community Empowerment, more commonly known as NICE, have helped families work toward stability.
Illegal border crossings fell sharply after the Biden administration introduced new restrictions in May. But the numbers are again rising — pushed higher this time by families with children. According to preliminary data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, August was the busiest month ever for apprehensions for migrant families crossing the border with children from Mexico.
Families with children now account for about half of arrests of people crossing the border illegally from Mexico, with more than 91,000 arrests in August, according to a U.S. official who was not authorized to discuss numbers and spoke on condition of anonymity.
That's dramatically up from the 60,161 arrests in July and 39,305 in June. The August tally surpassed the previous high of 84,486 in May 2019. Overall, arrests from illegal crossings from Mexico topped 177,000 in August, the official said, up from 132,652 in July and 99,539 in June.
New York City has welcomed 112,000 since spring 2022, nearly 60,000 temporarily living in government shelters.
Advocacy groups are closely watching how the city's schools respond to the migrant influx, but sympathize with city officials who continue to plead for more money from Albany and the White House.
"Any city would struggle to receive the large number of children that are coming at one time, who are also learning English, as well as living in temporary housing or in temporary shelters," said Natasha Quiroga, the director of education policy at the New School's Center for New York City Affairs.
"The city has attempted to create some sort of plan, but there is still just not enough there, just not enough resources to go around," she said.
There were isolated problems on opening day, Quiroga said, most having to do with enrollment paperwork. There were reports of long lines at some campuses, but that is often part of the normal chaos during the first day of school, she said.
When she recently held a workshop at the Roosevelt, more than 100 people showed up.
"The U.S. American education system and the New York City educational system are incredibly complicated and very different from other countries," Quiroga said.
When Carchipulla's husband broached the idea of heading north, he suggested he go alone. But she insisted that they remain together.
Her husband has been only able to find occasional work, such as jobs at construction sites. They are hoping he can get working papers as soon as possible. Kimberly wants to work, too, but she has two young children who cannot be left alone.
Carchipulla dreams of her son developing a profession, maybe someday joining the masses of hurried people wearing suits, ties and shiny shoes.
His mother beamed as Damien spoke, then laughed when the boy recited a few words in English.
"It will be easier for him to learn English," she said. When Damien does, she is depending on him to "help me with things I don't understand."
For his first day of school, Damien had much simpler plans: "I want to meet new friends," he said. "And I want to learn English."
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