Thousands of migrant children test NYC schools system

The mayor of New York has warned that the city could be "destroyed" if it does not get more help to cope with an influx of migrants. About 20,000 new arrivals started school on Thursday in America's biggest city, underscoring the scale of the challenge.

Children in New York City are going back to class.

Outside of the Riverside School on the upper west side of New York, 10-year-old Thiago Mangier was beaming with excitement as he waited for his mother to pick him up from his first day on Thursday.

Standing alongside his peers, he displayed none of the jitters that one might expect from a new student, let alone one who had recently arrived from another country.

Thiago is one of 20,000 migrant children who have entered New York City's school system. He came in March with his parents and infant sister Suzette from Lima, Peru, and has been staying in a shelter nearby at the Watson Hotel.

"I was really excited, I was so happy, it was a really nice classroom," Thiago told the BBC. Most importantly, he was happy to talk and play with new friends, something he has not had in a while.

Out of the Riverside public school's 600 students, 200 are newly arrived migrants.

His mother, Patricia Albines, chokes up as she wishes her son happiness here, but she is confident that he is resilient. "I'm not worried because Thiago was a really good student in Peru, so I know he can give his all," she says.

As New York marked the beginning of the new school year for more than one million students, Mayor Adams was on hand in the scorching heat to wish students in the Bronx good luck.

He faces many challenges, not least a potential school bus driver strike, but the migrant crisis is one that he addresses regularly and emphatically.

On the eve of the first day of school, he went further in his warnings than ever before, saying the issue "will destroy New York".

He told the crowd he did not see an end in sight to the crisis and believed every service would be affected.

His comments were condemned by rights groups, including the Legal Aid Society and the Coalition for the Homeless, who called them reckless fear-mongering.

In a statement, they said: "His dystopian comments dehumanise and villainise people who fled unimaginable situations in their home countries merely for an opportunity to provide for their families and secure a better life."

For months, Mayor Adams has trod a fine line in welcoming new migrants and celebrating New York's handling of the crisis, while sounding the alarm about the city's finite resources.

And in doing so, the Democrat has placed the blame on his own party's leaders such as New York state Governor Kathy Hochul and President Joe Biden, accusing them of abandoning the city to manage what he sees as a national crisis on its own.

He has been pushing for months for more federal aid. Last week, Governor Hochul met the White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients and during the discussion the Biden administration agreed to work on things like speeding up work authorisations for migrants, and support for health, education and housing for recent arrivals.

Since April 2022, 110,000 migrants have come to New York, with 10,000 arriving a month, largely bused here to the Port Authority terminal by conservative leaders from border states like Texas, in a political dispute about border security.

The surge has forced city officials to open more than 200 emergency sites to house migrants, after its traditional shelters became overwhelmed. And schools are feeling the strain as well.

Outside of the Queens Plaza North Family Welcome Center, migrants still line up to register their kids for school even as classes have begun.

One of the biggest issues this time of year is finding school placements for every child in their current community when schools are full. Complicating matters further, new emergency shelters continue to open and migrants are continually moving between shelters and temporary housing, and therefore may be forced to transfer during the school year.

Another issue is the language barrier. Finding teachers who can speak not just Spanish, but more than a dozen other languages, has been a challenge.

Governor Hochul said: "We have individuals coming from Mauritania, for example.

"I don't know that we have many teachers who are proficient in the language spoken in Mauritania, so we have real challenges.

"They're coming in from West Africa, South and Central America, so it's not just assuming that Spanish is going to cover everybody. It doesn't come close."

Rita Rodriguez works as a director for the Immigrant Students' Rights Project at Advocates for Children organisation. She says even before this influx, the department of education did not have enough bilingual staff and that less than one quarter of students who could have enrolled in transitional bilingual programmes were able to do so.

She also worries that there aren't sufficient staff to offer translation services and interpretations for families.

NGOs have stepped in to fill in gaps where they can. At the Little Shop of Kindness in midtown Manhattan, families can get advice and school supplies. As part of their back-to-school drive, 750 bookbags were delivered to schools directly.

"We've had to step into that role because they aren't getting that support from shelters," Ilze Thielmann, director of TLC NYC, which set up the shop, tells the BBC.

Irma Davidson volunteers there and has helped many families, including Thiago's.

"Kids are up against a lot of difficult odds," she says.

"But children who came last year are coming to the store and are already speaking English better than their parents.

"I'm hoping they can leave the trauma behind and become happy Americans later in life."

At the Riverside School, Thiago carries his brand new Fortnite-themed backpack and is excited for his second day of school.

His mother Patricia is hopeful that his experiences here will help him adapt to his new life.