Immigrant children living in the United States as unaccompanied minors have been blocked or discouraged from registering for school in at least 35 districts in 14 states, an Associated Press investigation has found.
In the past three years, the federal government has placed more than 100,000 unaccompanied minors with adult guardians in communities nationwide; the children, many of whom are English-language learners from Central American countries, are expected to attend school while they seek legal status in immigration court.
Under federal law, all children, regardless of their immigration status, have the right to enroll in public schools, but even when enrolled some of these students are “pressured into what advocates and attorneys argue are separate but unequal alternative programs,” the Associated Press investigation found.
Social workers and immigration attorneys in Alabama, California, Florida, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas and South Carolina told the Associated Press that migrant students were barred from enrolling in K-12 schools, kept out of class for months, or sent to alternative programs that are deemed inferior.
A 2015 report from the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute found that unaccompanied minors have vastly different educational experiences depending on where they settle. The students, almost all of them from Central America and many with yearlong gaps in their formal education, represented a new challenge for the schools
Many school districts have struggled to meet the educational needs of these students, who often have gaps in their formal education and suffer from emotional trauma.
In fall 2014, the U.S. departments of Education and Justice issued joint guidance reminding districts that states cannot deny children a public education, regardless of immigration status. Districts found to have broken the law can be forced to change their enrollment policies, but it often requires intervention from law enforcement.
In New York, investigators found that a number of districts, despite repeated warnings from federal and state law enforcement agencies, continued to bar children from enrolling based solely on their immigration status. Last February, the state attorney general announced that 20 school districts in the state agreed to develop new enrollment policies after investigations unearthed a pattern of illegal enrollment requirements, including schools that made students or their guardians present Social Security cards.
Despite those efforts, the state is still listed among those with school systems that have shortchanged unaccompanied minors.
To determine where children were barred or discouraged from enrolling in school, the Associated Press “analyzed federal data to identify areas where the number of migrant children was relatively large when compared to public school enrollment, along with the number of students formally learning English.”
Photo credit: Candelario Jimon Alonzo, 16, is shown at his home in Memphis, Tenn. The teen came to the United States after fleeing Guatemala dreaming of going to high school and becoming more than what he saw along the rutted roads of his hometown. Instead, local school officials have kept Candelario out of the classroom since he tried to enroll in January. --Karen Pulfer Focht/AP
Photo credit: High school teacher Dennis Caindec, right, talks with a student during a 12th-grade senior seminar class at San Francisco International High School in San Francisco. While some districts in numerous states have discouraged migrant minors from Central America from enrolling in their schools, San Francisco International High School accommodated its youths by rewriting young-adult novels at a basic level to spark the newcomers’ interest in reading. --Jeff Chiu/AP
A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.