For many students, high school graduation is a momentous occasion.
But for Katherine and Kenia, who are on track to graduate this month from a high school in Charlotte, N.C., this rite of passage is bittersweet, a mixture of joy at reaching a significant milestone and deep uncertainty about what comes next.
Katherine, 17, and Kenia, 18, both hail from Honduras and were among the thousands of Central American children who made the perilous journey across the U.S.-Mexico border in recent years to escape violence and poverty at home. (Education Week is withholding the students’ last names at their request because of their immigration status.)
For some of those children, high school graduation marks the end of a period of relative stability. At school, they found trusted adults, got regular meals, and obtained mental-health assistance to deal with trauma from past experiences as they navigated a new country, school system, and language, said Gary Chapman, the executive vice president of Communities in Schools, a Virginia-based organization that provides wraparound services to school districts.
“School, for all intents and purposes, has become their home because of so much uncertainty in their lives,” said Chapman, whose organization helps about 6,700 unaccompanied minors nationally.
The majority of unaccompanied minors who enrolled are still in school, but a growing number are graduating. Such students are largely still undocumented, meaning that they cannot legally hold jobs or qualify for in-state tuition at many state colleges. Some are still mastering English and will need tutoring after graduation.
Those who have made it across the line are earning plaudits from counselors who saw them through their adjustment period.
“It speaks to their tenacity and their resilience and their ability to confront the barriers in their lives,” said Federico Rios, the program director of elementary sites and immigrant services at Communities in Schools of Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
The number of unaccompanied minors entering the United States surged in fiscal year 2014, when more than 102,000 children were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border, according to the Migration Policy Institute. While the surge lessened in 2015, the number of cases appears to be climbing again.
A recent Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Customs and Border Protection data found nearly 28,000 apprehensions of unaccompanied minors in the first six months of fiscal 2016—higher than in the first six months of fiscal 2015, when more than 15,600 such apprehensions were made. In 2014, the height of the unaccompanied-migrant crisis, the agency made just under 28,600 similar apprehensions.
The majority of those who made the crossing were boys.
Some children who reunited with family members or found sponsors had difficulty enrolling in school, even though districts are required by law to enroll children regardless of their immigration status. Reuniting with parents and family members with whom they had little or no prior relationships was a challenge for some. Access to stable housing and transportation were major barriers for others, Chapman said.
While districts, such as Montgomery County, Md., were lauded for helping to smooth the transition for unaccompanied minor students—including recruiting bilingual volunteers—some made the road difficult for the newcomers. Districts themselves were under tremendous financial pressures to address the needs of students whose education had been interrupted and, in many cases, who were several grades behind.
The Associated Press reported last month that in at least 35 districts in 14 states, it found that hundreds of undocumented minors from Central America had been “discouraged” from enrolling in schools or placed in separate educational settings, such as adult education programs. The Southern Poverty Law Center recently sued the superintendent and school board of Collier County in Florida on behalf of English-language learners, including some unaccompanied minors. The civil rights organization claims that the district excluded recently arrived students from enrolling in high school and then placed them in a noncredit English-language adult program for which they also had to pay a fee.
“These children do have rights to enroll in schools and to get access to language programs and to be treated as equal as all other students and not experience discrimination based on their national origin,” said Jennifer Coco, a senior staff attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center, who added that many districts still do not have meaningful plans on how to accommodate unaccompanied minors and address their unique needs.
Coco said it is important that state education departments set a tone for their local school districts that says, “we are going to be welcoming to these students. We recognize that it’s going to be a shift for some schools, as well as a financial obstacle that we need to figure out; but let’s plan for it because we have to. It’s not going to go away.”
In fiscal 2014, 34 percent of unaccompanied minors came from Honduras, according to the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. By 2015, 45 percent of those children originated in Guatemala, followed by El Salvador, and then Honduras. The majority of those children were placed with relatives and family members in communities with large Central American populations, including in California, Florida, New York, and Texas.
For Katherine, the journey began on an early November morning in fall 2013. Then 15, she left her mother, father, brother, and sister in the town of Goascorán, for the weeklong trip that would eventually take her to an uncle she had never met in Charlotte. Her parents feared she would be kidnapped if she stayed in the country, she said.
She left with two younger male cousins and someone the family had paid about $21,000 for all three, she said. The directions to the children were clear: Do not talk to strangers and do not separate from each other. By taking the bus, walking, and running when necessary, the group made their way through Mexico to the Texas border, she said. The group was separated briefly at the U.S.-Mexico border when Katherine was unable to pull herself over the fence separating the two countries. The boys—more muscular than she—were able to do so on the first try. She had to spend a night without them on the Mexican side before catching up with them the next day, she said. The group, she said, was never stopped by immigration officials on the journey.
In 2014, she enrolled in school in Charlotte, nervous and concerned about her limited English, which extended to offering and responding to greetings and knowing how to count in English.
Her first week at a U.S. high school was memorable, but not all for good reasons, she said. Another student approached her, told her she did not like her because she was Hispanic, and punched her, she said. (Katherine said the girl was suspended.) She was also very aware of the differences in the two school systems. She wore uniforms in Honduras, but that was not a requirement in Charlotte, and Chromebooks replaced paper and pencil, she said.
Kenia, who is from the town of La Entrada, in Copán, Honduras, was 14 when she left in October 2012 for her 17-day trip. Her parents, who left Honduras when she was about 8 years old, lived in Charlotte. Fearful that she might be married off as a teenager, they made arrangements to get her out of the country. (Her brothers followed a year later.)
She was accompanied by three other people, including an uncle and aunt. The trip remains a blur, she said, but she remembers being cold and often hungry. When she reunited with her parents, she felt at peace, but at the same time, the reunion seemed “strange” to her because of the long separation.
It took a while to get used to Charlotte. Like Katherine, she had a rudimentary acquaintance with English: She could say her name, count, and make simple requests.
“It was hard, it was difficult,” Kenia said, recalling that she felt lost. Another student helped her translate and get through the first few days, she said.
Communities in Schools of Charlotte-Mecklenburg serves about 350 unaccompanied students like Kenia and Katherine, Rios said. Program participation is voluntary, but the group helps students navigate the system, including finding housing and school supplies, connecting with legal services, providing bilingual tutoring and mentoring, and getting dental screenings. One North Carolina site coordinator started an after-school program that offers homework help, advice on confronting life challenges, and a chance to play soccer—"the kinds of normal things you would want any child to have at the end of the day,” said Molly Shaw, the executive director of Communities in Schools of Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
Site coordinators also ensure that students have a trusted adult they can lean on, she said.
“These are youths whose families are so fearful for the lives of their own children that they are taking the risk to send them, unaccompanied, across the border for a safer future,” Shaw said. “They are coming here to escape violence and trauma, and once they are here, it’s really up to us to show them the importance of education and to wrap them in the services they need, so that they can continue their education, so that we can help them onto the best trajectory for them, while keeping them safe.”
With graduation approaching, Katherine and Kenia both have post-high-school plans. They both know that achieving them will be difficult given that they are still undocumented and are working to improve their English.
Katherine wants to study cosmetology, but she would also have trouble coming up with the $20,000 or so it would take, she said. Kenia has always wanted to work in a hospital, possibly as a pediatrician, she said.
Both students will spend the summer taking intensive English classes that Communities in Schools is arranging. They are proud of what they have accomplished and are optimistic about the future.
“I made a promise to my parents that I was going to graduate from high school,” said Katherine, who tries to speak to her parents daily. “And that’s what I am doing.”
For her part, Kenia is undeterred.
“Anything can happen,” she said. “Anything is possible.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 08, 2016 edition of Education Week as Unaccompanied Minors Cross New Hurdle: Graduation