OPINION: The migrant crisis is not unsolvable

We just need to step up and create more holistic structures

(Photo by LEONARDO MUNOZ / AFP) (Photo by LEONARDO MUNOZ/AFP via Getty Images)

(Photo by LEONARDO MUNOZ / AFP) (Photo by LEONARDO MUNOZ/AFP via Getty Images) Asylum-seeker families at Romemu Center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side on June 27, 2023

Over the past year, the term “migrant crisis” in the United States has become a politicized fear-mongering phrase that has vilified people and families fleeing wars, persecution, gun violence and poverty, dehumanizing them as a nuisance. Cities like ours are struggling to provide shelter, food and jobs to migrants – with some families being kicked out of shelters and onto the streets in the cold.

It’s time we acknowledge the “migrant crisis” for what it is – it is a humanitarian crisis affecting immigrants, migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, and we shouldn’t turn our backs on them now. 

The United States is home to almost 11 million undocumented individuals. Individuals who, with the U.S. 2024 presidential election moving full speed ahead and a potential Trump administration looming on the horizon, are bound to become scapegoats once again for the policy shortcomings on both sides of the aisle. 

It’s important to remember that the current humanitarian crisis unfolding at the border and in sanctuary cities is in large part a byproduct of President Trump’s inhumane and cruel immigration policies that denied migrant families and children basic human rights and closed legal pathways for asylum seekers to be recognized as refugees. 

We are now seeing history repeating itself with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star program which has endangered the lives of families and children crossing the border since 2021. Three migrants have already drowned in the Rio Grande this year due to the razor wire Gov. Abbott has installed along the banks – razor wire being much more dangerous than regular barbed wire. 

To address the humanitarian crises created by draconian crusades like this one, we need to do more than just show our solidarity. Sanctuary cities, those that protect undocumented individuals from deportation, like Chicago and New York, are finally listening to the plight of newly arrived migrants and are creating more access to work, health care and housing. 

And that’s the first step. To listen. Because when I hear about young children risking their lives to cross the border for a glimpse of the American Dream, I think of myself. I think of the 14-year-old unaccompanied kid who risked it all to enter the southern border and seek asylum. I think of what it took to get me where I am today, and what I can do to help others thrive as well. 

The process was complex and discouraging, of course. I was detained for over two weeks in a juvenile immigration facility while I waited for my custodianship to be given to a friend in New York. Even after custodianship was granted, I internalized the stigma and hopelessness of living in a country without legal status. I felt mired in a limbo I couldn’t escape. I had no money or family and was disenfranchised by the country I wanted to call home. So many times, all I could do was cry because of how exasperated I had become.

Despite these challenges, I pushed through because it’s in my nature – and in every single immigrant’s nature who decides to come to the U.S. – to be unrelenting in achieving the American Dream. I found a job as a dishwasher at a restaurant where I worked hours-on-end washing dishes until I had enough money to rent a room and hire an attorney who could bring me one step closer to my dream. This was the beginning of me building the work ethic and professional skills I would need to thrive. 

Finally, a court ruled that I was eligible for Lawful Permanent Resident status, and it drove me to work harder in high school. By the time I graduated at the top of my high school class, I had been accepted into 12 out of 15 colleges and universities I applied for with full rides. I chose St. Lawrence University, and while studying American government and politics, I got involved with Oyate Group, a non-profit organization focused on alleviating poverty across New York City at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

With the rise of COVID cases in the Bronx and a shortage of vaccines in 2021, I volunteered with the organization’s Bronx Rising Initiative to conduct door-to-door outreach and sign up New Yorkers to receive a COVID-19 vaccine – helping vaccinate over 40,000 people deemed “unreachable.” 

Once I graduated from St. Lawrence, I decided to join Oyate Group as a program coordinator where I now oversee a first-of-its-kind paid internship program for undocumented youth, Beyond Rising. It is a program designed for undocumented high school and college students in New York City left out of formative professional development experiences like the city’s Summer Youth Employment Program due to their legal status. 

Beyond Rising gives undocumented youth the opportunity to explore different careers and receive training and mentoring in a professional setting at Fordham University, Lehman College, Columbia University's Teachers College and Hostos Community College among other institutions. To date, we have hosted over 80 participants, paying each student a $500 prepaid gift card stipend for every 25 hours worked.

I have seen first-hand the hope it gives young undocumented people who, like me, felt forgotten and disenfranchised, with no future after graduating from high school or college. Of course, this is one group out of millions of undocumented immigrants who deserve to feel seen, protected and uplifted. 

Our program is unique, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s a straightforward and replicable concept aimed at creating legal and sustainable ways to fill a gap. It provides direct resources and training for undocumented youth. Beyond Rising not only cultivates their self-autonomy and sense of belonging, but it prepares them for the workforce – disrupting cycles of poverty for undocumented families living in New York City. 

We must create more holistic programs that not only address the needs of migrants but that also meet the needs of our city and our future. And it’s doable. It just takes the desire to take action. 

This isn’t solely the responsibility of our legislators and public servants. Community-based organizations like Oyate Group often have a closer ear to the ground about the needs of their communities. They can be bold trailblazers that create holistic structures like Beyond Rising to support the migrants who are arriving in our city. 

By taking action, we can lead the way to better address the needs of those who chose this country to call home. Because we are here to stay.

Alex Reyes is program coordinator of Oyate Group and advocate for undocumented youth.