Advocates played the roles of a mother and son who came to Long Island from Central America, acting before an audience of more than 120 people attending a Hofstra University forum Wednesday on the migration of unaccompanied minors.
The “mother” told of migrating after her husband was killed. The “child” related being scared as he later crossed the border by himself. Once here, he struggled to fit in and was lured by a gang.
The story ended in the boy’s voice: “My name is Julio. I’m 16 years old and today I was murdered by a rival gang member.”
The tale was fictional, but it was meant to represent the perils faced by children fleeing violence and poverty and experiencing trauma in the process, said panelist Rahsmia Zatar, executive director of STRONG Youth, a community group in Uniondale that strives to prevent gang violence.
“Our struggle now is to try to have this type of conversation with everybody” and “to be able to put context” in the debate about the causes of the migration, Zatar said.
“While this may seem like an overwhelming situation,” she added, “the truth is that if you are capable of loving . . . the work becomes very simple” in helping those children.
Long Island has become one of the main landing spots in the United States for thousands of unaccompanied minors who have illegally crossed the border with Mexico, mostly coming from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
They have sought refuge with relatives and sponsors in larger numbers since 2014, as many pursue a Special Immigrant Juvenile designation, which gives residency status to many escaping abuse, abandonment and neglect.
About 6,860 children, out of more than 160,000 who entered the United States since 2014, resettled on Long Island. Close to 1,300 of the unaccompanied minors arrived in Nassau and Suffolk counties between Oct. 1 and Jan. 31 of this year, according to the most recent figures from the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Benita Sampedro, co-director of Hofstra’s Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program, said the forum sought to spread awareness of those children’s struggles, particularly among students planning careers in education or as social workers.
“We basically want to train our students and have them acquire knowledge on immigration from a sociological and a historical point of view,” Sampedro said.
Benjamin Bratter, a panelist who is an immigration lawyer with an office in Glen Cove, described an overburdened immigration system putting the emphasis on deporting children. He told the audience he had returned from a morning of immigration hearings in a crowded Manhattan courtroom, where one judge was to hear 120 cases over the course of the day, at times questioning small children.
“Whatever you hear about the immigration system . . . it’s actually much worse, and it’s worse because people are being denied constitutional rights,” Bratter said.
Many of those at the forum were students from Uniondale High School, Alfred E. Smith High School in the Bronx, Progress High School for Professional Careers in Brooklyn and Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School in Queens.
Some in the audience were recent migrants themselves, such as Christian Chicas, 18, who came alone a year ago from El Salvador and now is a 10th-grader at Uniondale High School. He said he was fleeing gangs in his home country.
“I didn’t feel I belonged with that crowd,” Chicas said in Spanish. “I like studying, and I’m struggling to learn, but I’m trying my best here.”
Luz Sorto, a 12th-grader at Uniondale High School who came to the United States three years ago, said many like her just need a little help to do well here.
“There are many students who want to get ahead, but who couldn’t do it in their countries because there is too much violence and lack of opportunities,” Sorto said.
Their stories, she believes, don’t have to end tragically, like the fictional one told on stage.