BY KYLEE TSURU
At Macombs Dam Park on E. 161st Street, players from the soccer club South Bronx United trickle onto the soccer fields for practice. Nearly all of club’s players now call the Bronx home, but most of athletes in the team’s royal blue jerseys are immigrants. Like the community where South Bronx United is based, the club’s demographics are diverse. Players come from 23 countries, nearly all from Latin America or West Africa— and frequently need legal assistance to navigate immigration laws in the United States.
The federal Board of Immigration Appeals officially recognizes South Bronx United, allowing Brendan Davis, the club’s 29-year-old legal services coordinator, to practice immigration law and represent the club’s players and their families in proceedings before Immigration Courts and the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.
According to Davis, President Trump’s recent executive orders on immigration have increased the fear and confusion among the club’s players and their families.
“We’ve heard of families who won’t come out to academic programming or practices because of the children being recipients of deferred action,” Davis said. “Their parents would be presumably undocumented, but it is more a reflection of the child’s position, that the child is undocumented.”
In the 2016 season alone, the club managed 51 legal immigration cases, and of those, four athletes gained Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status and another four acquired legal permanent residency through asylum or Special Immigrant Juvenile Status program. Since the club’s creation in 2009 by executive director Andrew So, it has managed a total of 75 immigrant legal cases and helped 23 youth or family members gain legal permanent residency. Fifteen of these cases were acquired through Special Immigrant Juvenile Status.
Mohammed, whose last name has been withheld to protect his privacy, is a 15-year-old midfielder from the Ivory Coast and one of the players with permanent residency because of the South Bronx United’s legal immigration assistance. After civil unrest in his country, Mohammed fled to the United States when he was 8 from Abidjan, a city on the southern Atlantic coast of the African country.
“When I was growing up, soccer was all we thought about,” the teen said with a broad smile during one of South Bronx United’s after-school study programs at the High School for Careers in Sports. “We slept, ate, breathed, played soccer. It wasn’t organized like it is here. It was chaotic. It was street ball.”
He and his mother joined his father, who had previously moved to New York City, with hopes for a safer life and better opportunities. He still remembers the day he discovered South Bronx United, which receives funding through private donors and grants from organizations like the U.S. Soccer Foundation, Cosmopolitan Junior Soccer League and Play Soccer 2 Give. A group of boys were playing a pick-up game in a schoolyard near his Bronx apartment. The 8-year-old from the Ivory Coast joined the game because the boys were speaking French. They were impressed with young Mohammed’s skills and told him about South Bronx United.
“It was a Tuesday,” Mohammed recalled. “Then my dad and friend took me to tryout, and I eventually joined the team.”
Mohammed, like the other 150 players on South Bronx United’s SBU Academy’s eight competitive travel teams, is required to attend after-school programs to be eligible to practice and play in games. He and the other teenagers on the five boys teams and three girls teams attend after-school tutoring, sophomore skills language classes, SAT prep courses and for seniors, college prep classes. Kids on SBU Academy teams spend at least 10 hours a week during the school year in these program activities. Athletes typically spend Monday and Wednesdays in the classroom while Tuesdays and Thursdays are reserved for practice time on the field or in the gym during the winter months.
“When I leave this program I want to go to college,” the freshman at Frederick Douglass Academy said. “I will hopefully play Division 1 soccer and then try to take it professional. If not that, I want to do something in the medical field.”
For an 8-year-old, his immigration status was not something he understood. He says a new culture, language (he grew up speaking French and a tribal dialect) and life was all he remembers adjusting to when he first moved to the Bronx.
One hundred percent of players who join SBU Academy’s competitive teams are screened by Davis, their immigration status analyzed, and if needed, taken on as a client by the Australian lawyer who himself, has a green card.
“It was nice to have help,” he said, referring to Davis’s assistance with his immigration status. “When I came here, my paperwork was a little bit messed up. It was my age. They made me three or two years older than I actually was, and I know it caused delays in getting my green card.”
According to Davis, Mohammed received his permanent residency about two years ago. It took between six and nine months for him to get his green card. Now the South Bronx United lawyer is assisting the midfielder’s father in attaining naturalization to become a U.S. citizen.
“What did I tell you that you have to do?” Davis asked the teen wearing a red Arsenal pullover, a small white Puma logo sitting on his right shoulder.
“Help him study for his test,” Mohammed, number six on the field, replied.
Jhonny, a 17-year-old sophomore, has a story like Mohammed’s. He grew up playing soccer in his home country. He remembers playing on the streets of Haiti with friends. An orphan and only child, he lived with his grandmother.
“It was hard in Haiti,” he said quietly, not confident in his English, his first language being Creole. “My family was poor. If you don’t have any money, you can’t play on a team. My grandmother did not have money, so it was hard to even go to school or eat well.”
When she died, he had no one to care for him and no reason to stay in Haiti. In May of 2015, he boarded a Spirit Airlines flight to New York City with a tourist visa to live with a family friend. Many things changed, but he said soccer was a constant.
“It is the same there and the same here. It helped me make friends,” Jhonny said. “I play midfield on the wing. It gives me a lot of opportunity to go one-on-one.” Once again, it was Davis who provided legal counsel for the young athlete who joined SBU Academy two years ago.
Davis and South Bronx United work with the Bronx Immigration Partnership, Terra Firma NYC, the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York and the New York Immigration Coalition to assist players and their families in navigating an increasingly threatening landscape for immigrants. Prior to working for the soccer club full-time, Davis did pro bono work at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York where he recognized the need for legal representation for SBU’s players and their families, as the majority are immigrants. He joined SBU as a lawyer full-time in September of 2014.
Davis recently hosted an event to discuss recent executive orders on immigration to equip parents of South Bronx United players with information.
“In this moment, there is a lot of confusion around a lot of issues with the Trump administration, and it is changing by the day,” he said. “We are just trying to be a consistent reliable voice. We are trying to counter a lot of rhetoric that has come out with the administration.”
Rosalyn Valdez, South Bronx United’s volunteer coordinator and team mentor for a SBU Academy girls team, assisted Davis in the recent “Know Your Rights” event. She said parents’ main concerns are what would happen to their children if they themselves were deported.
“Kids will come to me, especially my ESL kids, they are worried about their parents, about their status and being separated from them,” she said.
Davis is currently assisting a young girl in South Bronx United’s rec-league – one of 800 kids in the soccer club who are not on a competitive travel team— get Special Immigrant Juvenile Status to stay in the country. The child fled to the United States from Honduras, a country in Central America’s Northern Triangle known for endemic levels of murder, drug and gang violence.
“The hurdle we face at the moment, really for the past 18 months, is a documentary issue with the birth certificate,” Davis said. “Depending on country of origin, there are issues of unrest and chaos where documents, like her birth certificate, are held and are hard to access because of the turmoil.”
The young girl is currently in removal proceedings, meaning her case is before an immigration judge, and the U.S. government is actively pursuing a case against her to deport her back to Honduras. As Davis works to secure her status, she continues to attend South Bronx United’s community programs and weekly soccer practices.