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    After altercation video goes viral, NYC migrant street vendors get an assist

    By Arya Sundaram,

    A street vendor sells products along Roosevelt Avenue in Queens, on Aug. 16, 2023. The number of street vendors in the city has surged amid an immigration wave that started in 2022. Many of those vending do so without city licenses.

    Romelia has been selling fruit cups from a wheeled vending cart since she moved to New York City from Ecuador three years ago.

    She’d prefer other work, the 23-year-old said. Getting up early and lugging her cart through the subway is tiring, Romelia said while cutting mango on a recent afternoon at the Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center station in Brooklyn.

    “It’s because of the small kids,” she said in Spanish, in a walkway under the 4 and 5 trains. With no one else to look after her 5-year-old daughter before and after school, she said, work options are limited. She asked that only her first name be used for fear of jeopardizing her immigration status.

    Romelia’s plight is all too common, according to members of Algun Día , a volunteer group of bilingual social workers formed earlier this year to address an influx of migrant children seen vending in the subway , with and without a parent. The volunteers regularly take to the subways and streets to canvas street vendor families across the city and connect them with legal help, child care and other services.

    Monica Sibiri, one of the Algun Día’s founders and leaders, said the vast majority of migrant parent vendors whom the group speaks to have been selling goods on the street or subways because they lack child care. Some even have work permits — the absence of which poses a major barrier for migrants to get jobs — but ultimately the city's limited child care options preclude them from securing other work, she said.

    Last weekend, lack of child care was a main complaint from migrant vendors during the Algun Día's “emergency outreach” at parks throughout Manhattan. It was organized in response to a viral video showing a physical altercation between a city Parks Department officer and a 14-year-old accused of selling food in Battery Park without a license.

    The volunteer aid workers said their interactions with migrants and their children underscore the need for more child care services and outreach for newly arrived families. Some members of the City Council have proposed boosting local funding for child care services for undocumented immigrants and asylum-seekers.

    “This is a community that fell through the cracks,” said Sibiri, who along with other volunteers pointed out that more migrant vendors are emerging from the subway and hitting the streets as temperatures rise. “They wouldn’t be selling anything if they were to receive a proper entry into city services.”

    'An education first approach'

    Algun Día said it has urged the city, including police and parks officials, to take a more educational approach to vendor enforcement, rather than a punitive one. In the viral video, a scuffle ensued when Parks Department workers sought to destroy perishable items the agency said were unsafe for consumption.

    "We’ve been working to maintain an education-first approach, which emphasizes connecting people to the resources they need (child care, school enrollment, connection to asylum applications and work authorization)," said Shaina Coronel, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, in a statement.

    Coronel pointed to flyers that the NYPD has been distributing to migrant vendors in subways, which she said include a link to resources and can be provided "in place of fining/arresting."

    “NYPD will make determinations on cases where further action is necessary — but the approach we are emphasizing at this time is educating first,” she said.

    An NYPD spokesperson said that 1,102 summonses were issued for unlawful vending, solicitation and panhandling in the subway last year. The spokesperson didn’t confirm whether the agency is taking an “education-first approach,” only saying that education has long been part of the strategies used by the department’s transit bureau. Officers may remove, ticket or arrest vendors who repeatedly violate the city’s rules, the spokesperson added.

    Algun Día was initially intended to be a three-month project, but the need for direct outreach to vendors was so dire, the group has since outlasted its initial mission, according to Sibiri.

    More than 200,000 migrants, mostly asylum-seekers, have come to New York City in an influx that began in spring 2022. And nearly 78% of the more than 65,500 migrants currently in city shelters are traveling as families with children, city figures show.

    Vendor families who speak to the social workers are rarely aware of the child care services available to them, Sibiri said. That includes many underutilized child care centers across the city . Sibiri highlighted Promise NYC , a city-funded child care program launched in January 2023 for immigrant families and asylum-seekers.

    Liza Schwartzwald, director of economic justice and family empowerment at the New York Immigration Coalition, which funds Algun Día, said newly arrived migrants also have access to city-funded pre-K programs that run until about 2:30 p.m., along with the federally funded Head Start program for children ages 3 and 4 in low-income families.

    “But that is functionally it when it comes to access to child care,” Schwartzwald said. “And all of those programs have limited seats and are not guaranteed.”

    The City Council is asking the Adams administration to boost Promise NYC’s annual budget from $16 million to $25 million to create more slots, which Schwartzwald said she also supports.

    Promise NYC has not grown significantly since its initial $10 million pilot phase, when it provided slots for 600 to 700 children in the first half of last year, according to the Council’s April response to the mayor's preliminary budget . After the program was set to end last summer, the city renewed the program and tacked on another $6 million in funding.

    'It’s dangerous to have your kids by you'

    During the emergency outreach on Saturday, one of Algún Día's leaders, Tiffany Hervas, introduced herself to migrant vendors. She sometimes wrote down her name, number and the group’s website in Spanish on a piece of paper, with a list of the services the group could help provide, including child care and employment.

    “What we've found is most people are selling candies or vending fruits out of necessity or familiarity, not because they actually want to,” Hervas said.

    She told some migrant families whom she encountered about legal restrictions on child labor. “It’s dangerous to have your kids by you," she told a man selling fruit in Battery Park.

    But Hervas also sought to build a rapport with the vendors, and avoided crowding individual families with volunteers and leading with information about the law. “They’re scared they can always get deported,” she said.

    Algun Día is working to recruit a group of migrant vendors to whom the group will pay a stipend to help conduct outreach to other vendors, Hervas said. That program is set to launch at the end of the month. Sibiri said the 14-year-old girl involved in the altercation that went viral is going to participate in the program.

    After video of the altercation was posted on social media, eight local elected officials issued a statement calling on the city to pass a series of street vendor reform bills , including a measure to remove the criminal penalties for street vending and another to lift a cap on vending permits. The Street Vendor Project, a local nonprofit advocacy group, launched a GoFundMe page to compensate the migrant family who lost goods, income and their cart in the encounter.

    “Within the street vending community, incidents like this happen so much more frequently than are seen on camera,” said Carina Kaufman-Gutierrez, the project's deputy director. “And it’s important to recognize that there will continue to be viral incidents like this, because our legal system currently allows that.”

    This article was updated with additional information about Algun Día's outreach efforts.

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