Equity & Diversity

Options for Undocumented, Unaccompanied Immigrant Youths

By Mary Ann Zehr — December 01, 2010 2 min read
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The advice I usually see in reports about the overlap of schooling and immigration is that educators should steer away from discussing students’ immigration status. The sentiment is that whether a student is living legally in this country isn’t anyone’s business in a school since students are entitled to a free K-12 education regardless of their immigration status.

But a report just released by the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth and Kids in Need of Defense gives different advice.

It recommends that if educators become aware that a student is undocumented—if, for instance, a student discloses it—they should talk with the student about how to pursue legal status. The reason? It can be easier for youths to get legal status before they are 18.

The report is referring particularly to undocumented immigrant youths who are not accompanied by their parents in this country. Teenagers who slip across the U.S.-Mexican border without their parents would fall into this category. Some of these youths are picked up by immigration authorities but many are not. The report says that if a court finds they cannot reunify with their parents because of abuse, abandonment, or neglect, they may be eligible for legal status. Also, if they are unaccompanied and have suffered persecution in their home country, they may be eligible for asylum. If youths have been victims of human trafficking, they may be able to get a special visa that can lead to legalization in the United States.

The report also notes that some of these youths are also homeless and are entitled to the same services in a school district as any children who are homeless.

The report is only 16 pages long but includes a lot of information that I haven’t seen put together and pitched to educators anywhere else.

The overall message is that educators may be in a good position to inform undocumented youths that they should seek legal status before they become too old to take advantage of some options. And at the same time, the educators should help youths find reliable lawyers who will keep the immigration status of the youths confidential.

I met a couple of unaccompanied youths a few years ago who, with the help of pro bono lawyers, got legal papers to live in this country because they had been either abused or neglected by their parents in their home countries. They were released from a detention center, which I wrote about for EdWeek, and pursued jobs and further schooling in the local community.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.