Professor Isabel Martinez, whose work has focused on undocumented immigrant kids migrating to New York City, has found a novel way to help the children and teenagers flowing across the border: novels, literally.
Martinez teamed up several organizations with a renowned Latino bookstore to create a book drive to provide bilingual or Spanish books to thousands of detained unaccompanied immigrant children. Many of the children await court cases which include possible deportation, and some are waiting to be reunited with a family member.
“I wanted to bring attention to the issue in a way that could directly benefit the children and teenagers, and would not be directly tied to the scary experiences that they were having with the court system,” said Martínez, Assistant Professor in the Department of Latin American and Latina/o Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY.
Martinez's aim is for people to see beyond the highly charged political debate and focus on the children themselves.
She recently began working with the Safe Passage Project, whose goal is to recruit, train and mentor attorneys who are willing to represent immigrant children, since there is no free counsel available in removal proceedings, even for children.
According to Lenni Benson, Professor of Law at New York Law School and the Director of the Safe Passage Project, there are approximately 6,000 cases in New York City's immigration court docket alone which involve unaccompanied minors. Benson expects this number to surge this year with the recent increase in children crossing the border.
Children and teenagers who have been apprehended and detained by immigration authorities stay in local shelters for about 30 days. During this time, the their days are filled with schooling and exercise. Martinez said she hopes the books collected in the drive provide the children with additional activities and ways to fill their days.
Drawing on her relationship with the Children’s Village, a charity out of New York whose work includes working with unaccompanied minors, Dr. Martínez saw the benefits of all these organizations working together.
“It was a no-brainer to reach out to Aurora Anaya Cerda, owner of La Casa Azul Bookstore in New York, to ask is she would do this, and to Jeremy Kohomban, CEO of The Children’s Village, to ask if they would be interested in receiving the books,” she said. “They both immediately agreed.”
The book drive launches Thursday July 10th. A project between La Casa Azul and the Safe Passage Project, it will accept Spanish-language and bilingual books that are age-appropriate and culturally relevant for Mexican and Central American children. "The books are for children and youth that are detained, awaiting trial, and also awaiting to be reconnected with relatives," said Anaya Cerda.
La Casa Azul is discounting books about family and immigration written by Latino authors for those who want to purchase for donation, and it is also accepting new and gently used books in good condition. Donors can ship books to La Casa Azul. The drive runs through August 10th.
Anaya Cerda says they have already received books from esteemed Latino authors Rudolfo Anaya, Sandra Cisneros and Julia Alvarez. Anaya Cerda said the children will be able to take the books with them once they leave the detention center. “We hope the stories will make them feel less alone.”
“The book drive kick-off and the film screenings will be an opportunity for people to come together at La Casa Azul Bookstore to learn the facts about what is happening locally and how people can get involved," said Anaya Cerda.
Martinez, who came up with the idea for the book drive, wishes these immigrant children experience what she did as a child: a sense of escape - at least for a moment - through a good story.
“I am hoping that these books will provide the same for these children who have seen unspeakable acts and are arriving traumatized. Albeit small, these books can provide a respite from what they have just endured, as well as the current uncertainty and fear that is unfairly overwhelming their lives now.”