MATH ON THE BORDER: Working with unaccompanied migrant children in Federal custody

The events recounted here happened in January 2020. The program described has been suspended during the COVID crisis.  Perhaps there will be no need for it when the crisis is over. 

Nadia looked at me with big brown eyes and asked a question.  My Spanish is minimal, so I called over a coworker, one of the caregivers at her shelter.  She was working with tangrams (a geometric puzzle), and was asking whether she could turn a particular piece sideways to form a certain shape.  This was not how the question was translated, and probably not how it was posed.  But I understood it, despite the dual barriers of language and formality.

Nadia is a migrant child who has been separated from her parents and is under Federal custody with the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).  She may have come without authorization with a “coyote”, or been left with a relative and picked up in a raid, or just walked over the border herself.  I do not know how she got here.  But her bright eyes and her engagement with geometry tell me all I need to know.  Her mind is alive, and I want to keep it that way.  Like most of these children, she is resilient and resourceful.  And like most of these children, highly motivated.  These are immigrants, and immigration is a filter.  Only the most energetic and future-minded are likely to pass through.

I am working today with three other facilitators at Catholic Charities of New York.  Twice a week, from 11 AM to 2 PM, two or three of us meet with Dr. Usha Kotelawala, the director of this program (Math on the Border) for the Julia Robinson Mathematics Festival.  They meet at the office of Catholic Charities, in lower Manhattan.  The children are there to meet with a lawyer (typically for 20-25 minutes) to prepare for a court date that will determine their fate as immigrants.  But they must wait around for hours before it is their turn.  During that time, we engage them with mathematical puzzles, games, and activities.

The children love it.  Their eyes light up.  They intrigue each other.  Language and social barriers tumble.  And their minds are active.  The work is similar to leaving food and water in the desert for thirsty immigrants.  We are not offering them a complete diet or significant sustenance.  But we are keeping their minds alive until their situation stabilizes.

We have been working with this population since November 2018, for six hours each week.  To date we have had 216 hours of contact with more than 1000 of these children.  We never know how many children will be in attendance.  There can be as few as five, or as many as 25.  The average size of a group is 15, and we have three facilitators, again on average, to work with them.

The teaching requires skill, but is not difficult.  The children engage readily, and work with each other on the activities.  If it is a game, they will challenge each other and arrange impromptu “tournaments”.  If it is a puzzle, they will work together towards a solution.  The children can be as young as 5 years old, and as old as 17.  (At age 18 they “age out” of this program and are treated as adults.)  In one case, a teenage girl brought her infant daughter to the session—and participated while attending to the baby.

Nadia, for example, has come with two younger siblings—or maybe cousins—and the three of them work on the tangrams puzzle.  Nadia, as the oldest, takes the lead.  Her two companions are excited to work with their older sibling on this “advanced” puzzle.  A group across the table gets interested in the brightly colored plastic pieces and wants to know what the game is about.  Soon they too are working with a set of tangrams.

I am part of a pool of about 20 facilitators.  Since the children only see us once, it is a different group every week.  Hence facilitators need not commit a large part of their schedule to the program.  Most of them are retired teachers or STEM professionals.  They typically know how to relate to the children, and understand the mathematics and its value.  A minimum of on-the-job training is typically all that they require, and Dr. Kotelawala supervises that process.  We usually achieve a ratio of 1 instructor to 6 or 7 students, which is perfect for this informal situation.

The backgrounds of the instructors reflect the demographics of the group of retirees from which they are drawn.  Some of them have been mathematics specialists—we could not buy better expertise.  Others have a particular interest in Latin America.  One of them is starting a school in Nicaragua.  Another grew up in Venezuela, the child of American engineers working there, and speaks colloquial Spanish as well as his native English.

Another valuable group of facilitators is college or graduate students.  We get them whenever we can, and they are some of the most effective instructors.  They typically speak Spanish: many of our connections are with Hispanic student groups.  They have often had experiences similar to those of the children, and can offer themselves as role models, however brief the encounter.  And they know the mathematics.  Unfortunately, our program runs from 11 AM to 2 PM on weekdays, so these students are not regularly available, except during vacations or exam days.

The activities do not require any particular background of the children.  They have been intensively field-tested.  These are low-threshold, high-ceiling problems that can be worked by anyone with an interest.  And these students are interested.  They show the typical immigrant enthusiasm for learning. They engage readily and joyously in the activities.  Their faces shine.

About two hours into our work, Nadia had to leave.  It was her turn to have a legal consult.  She took her two younger charges, said goodbye, and went off to see the lawyers.  When she returned, she was not so happy.  We don’t know quite what the lawyer said, but it doesn’t matter.  Typically, the students are pensive and serious after their brush with legal reality.  It takes them some time to re-integrate into the group and engage in mathematics.  For them, time spent with us is a respite from concerns about the future.  For us, it is a rewarding and uplifting experience.


In March, 2020 the COVID emergency precluded our meeting these children.  Children are still being held without their parents by ORR, although fewer have been crossing the border.  Perhaps by the time the COVID plague lifts, such children will be reunited with their families quickly, and we will not have need for a Math on the Border program.

(Math on the Border was partially supported by a generous grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.)





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