Equity & Diversity

U.S. Schools Gear Up for Surge of Young Immigrants

By Lesli A. Maxwell — June 27, 2014 7 min read
U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents work at a processing facility in Brownsville,Texas, where federal immigration officials have seen a surge in the numbers of unaccompanied children and youths crossing the border illegally.
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As the federal government scrambles to respond to an unprecedented surge of unaccompanied minors streaming across the U.S.-Mexico border, the wave of young immigrants arriving alone from Central America has already begun to surface in communities and public schools far from the Southwest.

In Miami, a nonprofit agency that provides legal services to unaccompanied minors has served 1,600 such children since the beginning of the calendar year, the same number it served in all of 2013. Earlier this month, the Miami-Dade County school board approved Superintendent Alberto Carvalho’s request to seek additional federal funding to help the district cover the costs of educating what he called “a spike in the number of foreign-born students from Central America, specifically Honduras.”

In San Francisco and Oakland, Calif., as well as in suburbs of Washington, educators report that the number of unaccompanied minors has been rising steadily for several months in their high schools.

And in New York City, educators are beginning to coordinate with city agencies and nonprofit organizations to address the needs of some 3,000 undocumented children and youths who have arrived there over the past few months.

“There are so many noneducational needs that need tending to for these young people before they can even begin to focus on their education,” said Claire Sylvan, the executive director and president of the Internationals Network for Public Schools, a New York City-based group of 17 high schools around the country that serve newly arrived immigrants and English-language learners.

‘Humanitarian Crisis’

Since last October, more than 50,000 child migrants—most of them from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—have been detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents. That’s more than twice the number detained in all of 2013. Most of the detentions have occurred in the Rio Grande Valley region along the border between Texas and Mexico.

Under federal law, immigration authorities cannot turn away any children arriving from noncontiguous countries.

Two girls watch a World Cup soccer match on a television from a holding area where hundreds of mostly Central American immigrant children are being processed and held at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility in Nogales, Ariz.

The ballooning numbers prompted the Obama administration in late May to declare a humanitarian crisis and to open three emergency shelters, in California, Oklahoma, and Texas, to add to the federal government’s stable of 100 permanent shelters that house unaccompanied minors while they wait for immigration hearings and possible reunification with family members already in the United States. The administration has also asked Congress for $2 billion in new money to open more detention facilities and to hire more immigration judges to accelerate processing of a growing backlog of asylum and removal proceedings.

Many of the children and youths say that escalating violence and gang activity in their home countries, as well as the desire to reunite with parents in the United States, are driving them to make the grueling 1,000-mile trek through Mexico to the Texas border, where they are turning themselves over to Border Patrol agents.

Also contributing to the flow is the widespread belief in Central America that a change to U.S. immigration policy in 2012 allows young immigrants who make it to the border to stay. The Obama administration has aggressively countered that notion as Republican lawmakers have charged that the president’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, which suspended deportation for many immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children before 2007, as the main driver of the new migration.

In the Shelters

With hundreds of children and youths crossing the border daily, federal officials have struggled to provide shelter, food, and other basic services to them while they are detained. After taking the children and youths into custody, immigration officials have three days to transfer them to the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is responsible for their care in longer-term shelters while attempts are made to place them with relatives or guardians as they await deportation proceedings.

While in the shelters overseen by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, nonprofit organizations provide unaccompanied minors English-as-a-second-language classes, along with arts-and-crafts and recreational activities both inside and outside the shelters, said Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the agency that houses the refugee office. The average length of stay in the longer-term shelters is 35 days, Mr. Wolfe said.

By the time the young migrants reach U.S. communities like Miami, San Francisco, New York, and Prince George’s County, Md., many have already been released from federal custody to stay with a parent or an extended-family member. Some have been released to adult sponsors who are not relatives.

“I’ve never seen so many of these children coming at once, and I’ve never seen so many young ones on their own,” said Cheryl Little, the executive director of Americans for Immigrant Justice, a legal-services agency in Miami that provides free representation to unaccompanied children and youths.

“By the time we are seeing them, they may have already been in the country for weeks,” she said. “Many of them appear to be as young as 9 or 10.”

Once children are released to parents or adult sponsors, they are required to enroll in school. And while more polarized debates rage in Washington and around the country about immigration policy and how the Obama administration should handle the surge, district officials say they must be ready to serve the child migrants who arrive at their schools.

Complex Needs

Children detainees sleep in a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility in Brownsville, Texas. Many young migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are eventually turned over to a parent or adult sponsor already in the United States while they await removal proceedings.

In Maryland’s 125,000-student Prince George’s County district—just outside Washington and home to a large Central American immigrant community—educators saw an increase in the numbers of unaccompanied minors in 2012. Before that uptick, the district had around 75 such students, all of them of middle or high school age, said Patricia Chiancone, a counselor in the district’s international-programs office.

“We had over 200 unaccompanied minors this past school year,” she said. “And we are seeing them at the elementary level, which is new.”

The district has teacher professional development on tap this summer to prepare staff members for more of those students, Ms. Chiancone said.

Karen C. Woodson, the director of English-as-a-second-language and bilingual programs for the 151,000-student school system in neighboring Montgomery County, Md., said the trend has been similar there.

“We are finding a much greater need for mental-health support for these students,” Ms. Woodson said. “They’ve endured incredible trauma, and even when they are reunified with a family member, they might be facing a situation where their mom has a new husband and they are living with siblings that they have never met.”

Many of the unaccompanied minors—especially those who are of high school age—have had long periods of disruption to their schooling, though some may arrive with records showing they earned a few credits while living in the Office of Refugee Resettlement shelters.

School of Newcomers

At San Francisco International High School—where all 400 students are recently arrived immigrants—the percentage of unaccompanied minors has reached 25 percent of the school’s enrollment, up from about 10 percent when it first opened its doors in 2009, said Principal Julie Kessler.

Students’ personal circumstances vary, Ms. Kessler said. Some are living with parents and other family members, or in group homes, she said, but many are “navigating all of this on their own.”

Her school is set up to connect students to the services they will need, she said, including legal representation, housing referrals, and counseling.

“Our school is really built for these kids,” Ms. Kessler said. “They are not marginalized here, and we have the luxury of being able to really focus on what their needs are.”

Still, the barriers that unaccompanied minors face both in and out of school are daunting. A majority of them come into U.S. high schools, where graduating within four or even five years, while still needing to learn English and pass state exit exams, seems nearly impossible.

“The pressures are immense on them and on those of us who are working with them,” Ms. Kessler said.

At the same time, she said, unaccompanied minors are often the most motivated students in her school.

Case in point: A 22-year-old graduate of San Francisco International recently won a scholarship to a four-year college, even as she was in charge of a household of five younger brothers and sisters.

“It is a superhuman feat,” said Ms. Kessler. “These are some of the most resilient and brilliant young people I have ever seen.”

A version of this article appeared in the July 10, 2014 edition of Education Week as Schools Brace for Influx of Immigrants

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