According to the Connecticut State Department of Education, there were 1,745 displaced students from Puerto Rico in Connecticut schools as of mid-February. Even months after Hurricane Maria left widespread devastation in Puerto Rico, CT is still seeing displaced evacuees arriving from the island in search of aid and stability. The Board of Alders’ Education Committee held a workshop “on the welfare of the recent student arrivals from Puerto Rico” on February 21 at 6 pm. The political event addressed how schools in the district are responding to the influx of displaced Puerto Ricans, as well as what displaced families, currently under the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Transitional Sheltering Assistance program, will do when that aid ends. The funding for their stays under FEMA, which allows evacuees whose homes were destroyed to stay in hotels, is set to expire on March 20, 2018 – leaving many Puerto Ricans without food, shelter or a job to stay afloat.
I want to begin by praising the format of the political event. Its “workshop” format allowed for different ideas, input and suggestions on how to approach and most appropriately help the recent arrivals from Puerto Rico. Additionally, the event encouraged personal testimonies with an easy sign-up sheet at the entrance. This allowed an open dialogue between the Board of Alders, the Board of Education, and Puerto Ricans. Particularly surprising was that the group with the least amount of “voice” or “input” into the matter was the Board of Alders. It was beautiful to see that those deemed to have “less power,” were given the biggest opportunity to speak. While those “in power,” sat back and truly listened to what they could do to better support displaced Puerto Ricans. This exemplifies the push for a more democratic approach, rather than a paternalistic one, on how to best assist a vulnerable population. The format of the event proved to be a form of resistance against democratic backsliding as individuals and the state partnered together to invest in the principles of democracy by strengthening relationships needed for a community-centered approach.
New Haven schools have been working hard to welcome Puerto Rican students into their classrooms but the logistical challenges of receiving the children, many of whom do not have health records or academic transcripts, have been compounded by lack of federal assistance. The goal of the District has been to register and find a school for the displaced students as quickly as possible in the hopes to ease school enrollment for Puerto Rican youth. As Puerto Ricans continue to seek refuge in CT in the wake of Hurricane Maria, state lawmakers, local officials, social workers, and the school district strive to secure further aid to help evacuees. Their various testimonies resulted in an impassioned call for increased funding and a coordinated effort to help displaced students and their families. Although New Haven schools have prepared for the influx of students, insufficient funding and need-based programs have proved to be difficult hurdles. The children need help with everything from learning the language to acquiring weather appropriate clothing, not to mention handling the trauma caused by displacement. Through the comments given by the District, there seems to be a pressing need for more bilingual and bicultural support staff for Puerto Rican students. There was also an emphasis on working with state agencies and local nonprofits in order to identify how to best attend to behavioral needs (i.e. social and emotional support) in ways that prevent students from being stigmatized.
In the absence of sufficient assistance from the federal government, CT has been attempting to find ways to leverage existing resources, connections, and staff. In the initial days following the storm and even months later, there has been little to no effort on the part of the federal government to bring relief. In a political climate dominated by xenophobia and closed borders, it is not surprising that an influx of Latinx evacuees to the mainland would be unwelcome. The increased criminalization of migrants, especially intensified with Trump’s presidency, has spilled over into the federal response to this disaster. Puerto Ricans, deemed “foreign in a domestic sense,” have often blurred the lines between citizens and migrants. The lack of federal response after Hurricane Maria exemplifies the fact that Puerto Ricans have long been denied the same benefits provided to other American citizens. Throughout the workshop, many representatives from the District stressed that Puerto Ricans are, and consequently must be treated as American citizens.
Although the workshop was explicitly for Puerto Rican student arrivals, it was clear that it couldn’t just be about students – the issues extend beyond the classroom. Providing affordable housing, transportation, and job prospects have proven challenging as well. The District is working with community organizations for additional resources and support that children and their family may need. The governmental agencies, community organizations, and Puerto Ricans sounded sure of one thing – long-term housing will be the biggest challenge in the months to come. At first, many families were staying with relatives or friends temporarily, but insufficient affordable housing is making it difficult to give the arrivals true stability. One testimony addressed that Puerto Rico is inhabitable and unsafe, and therefore they have not come here because of desire but because of need. Additionally, Puerto Rican families emphasized their desire to make New Haven their new home by contributing back to the community. A member of Junta for Progressive Action added that the organization was supporting them “not just because they are American citizens, but because they are humans.”
Although the school system is where much of the hard work of disaster relief has been done, the task of addressing the destruction of Hurricane Maria must happen on many levels. There is clearly a resource allocation issue, yet with the lack of federal assistance it is especially important for the state to have an open dialogue with local organizations and recent arrivals about their currents needs. At the end of the workshop, the Board of Alders’ Education Committee voted to draft a letter to FEMA asking for extended funding past March 20. This very near end date would leave many families homeless and would be detrimental to many students’ academic success. While the inadequate federal response in support of displaced Puerto Ricans amplifies the democratic erosion occurring in America, events like this workshop resist democratic backsliding by inserting Puerto Ricans’ voices and rights into the forefront of the conversation. The workshop on the welfare of the recent student arrivals from Puerto Rico highlights the importance of constantly having to revitalize a democracy. At the end of the workshop, a member of the Board of Alders decided not to close this matter, but rather leave it open for further discussion as things develop. Likewise, a regime is never fully done becoming a democracy – there always needs to be an open dialogue which allows for constant reassessment.
Photo by Element5Digital on Unsplash, Creative Commons Zero license.”