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How to support ‘newcomer immigrant youth’ in Philadelphia

young man in gray shirt with black hat writing in notebook October 12, 2022 Category: ColumnPeople

We are one month into a new school year in Philadelphia. With a renewed focus on equity and student well-being, we must consider the experiences and needs of our city’s newcomer immigrant youth.

The term “newcomer immigrant youth” comprises immigrant adolescents across a range of immigration statuses who have arrived in the U.S. within the past two years. They represent thousands of this city’s residents. Nearly 60,000 Philadelphians moved to the United States within the last five years, and a majority of them earn less than $35,000, according to an analysis by Technical.ly as part of its THRIVING series. Nearly 1 in 4 are aged 18 or younger.

Newcomer youth bring tremendous assets and reserves of strength and wisdom that we should elevate, for their own well-being and for the enrichment of our communities. At the same time, many newcomer youth have experienced trauma and loss during their migration journeys, compounded by stressors in their new lives here in Philadelphia. These youth grapple with language barriers, culture shock, fluctuating family dynamics, financial pressures, and fear of deportation. They also face the typical challenges of adolescence while navigating a city beset by high poverty and gun violence.

Currently, newcomer immigrant youth have very limited access to systems of care and safe spaces where they are acknowledged and supported. Many of the systems these young people can legally access are under-resourced and overburdened. Despite this context, there are a few critical steps that all youth-serving systems can take to meet the urgent needs of Philadelphia’s newest arrivals. (Revisit Generocity’s reporting series on the promotora model that serves many immigrant communities in Philadelphia)

Build your knowledge about the unique characteristics of newcomer immigrant youth.

Many newcomer youth are living in the shadows, juggling concerns about their safety, family responsibilities, and the trials of adolescent development. Because of their complex circumstances, they often face barriers to engaging with formal institutions. For example, many teens who migrate to the U.S. alone must work full-time to support themselves, pay legal fees and migration debts, and send money to family members in their home countries, rather than enroll in school. These youth do not appear on teachers’ rosters and are unlikely to connect with service providers at exploitative workplaces. As such, we must weave together a network of service providers that can identify and build trust with newcomer youth to ensure they are seen and cared for across all of our systems.

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Spend some time learning about the complex identities and needs of newcomer youth. Doing so will enable you to recognize and connect with these young people whenever they do cross your path, whether in a classroom, at a local recreation center, or in a health center waiting room.

Inventory the services and supports that are—and are not—available to newcomer immigrant youth.

Understanding which resources newcomer youth can, and cannot, access is critical for building trust, maintaining engagement, and meeting their needs effectively. Frontline workers can play a pivotal role in educating youth about the rights and services to which they are entitled. For example, a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling guides the School District of Philadelphia’s policies to protect immigrant youth and provide language access services regardless of a student’s documentation status. When encountering newcomer youth within your organization, provide them with information about their rights at school, at work, and when interacting with city offices. The information and support you offer may encourage youth to access the few public resources that are available to them.

On the other hand, many newcomer youth and families cannot access federal benefits such as Medicaid, SNAP or TANF due to their immigration status. Additional state and local programs are only accessible to immigrant youth with refugee status or extensive formal education. Referring newcomer youth to services they cannot legally or practically access results in frustration and wasted time for both young people and service providers.

Reflect on the accessibility of direct services offered by your organization and investigate whether your referral agencies offer services to youth without social security numbers. Consider factors that shape the experiences of newcomer youth, including program costs, wait times, language access, and documentation requirements. Within your organization, create and share a list of vetted resources that newcomer youth can access, both on paper and in practice.

Create opportunities for newcomer immigrant youth to access services in ways that prioritize their safety and well-being.

Newcomer youth have endured challenging and often traumatic experiences, leaving their home countries and establishing new lives in an unfamiliar place. Many face these challenges while also navigating the risks and anxiety of interacting with government systems and other formal institutions.

Providing spaces of sanctuary can help newcomer youth feel a sense of trust and safety within your organization. Create a physical environment that is calm and welcoming, and develop strategies for communicating with warmth and care, even across language barriers. Implement safeguards for youth clients’ personal information, informed by current immigration and privacy laws.

Most importantly, involve newcomer youth as collaborators, using trauma-informed engagement practices. Seek feedback from youth in meaningful and sustainable ways, and compensate them for their time and expertise, accommodating for a variety of work authorization statuses.

In tandem with broader advocacy for policies that increase all immigrants’ access to more unencumbered resources and support, these recommendations can help us extend a warm and safe welcome to the newcomer youth across our city.

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