Equity & Diversity

‘Unaccompanied Minors’ Land in School

By Mary Ann Zehr — November 06, 2006 11 min read
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In some ways, this public school of some 50 students here in southwest Miami is like one new immigrants might have attended a century ago. Children of varying ages are grouped together in each of three classrooms. Those who know more are urged to help those who know less. The school board requires that subjects such as social studies and science be taught, but the teachers don’t break them into distinct classes. Rather, they weave them into the day’s lessons, which focus on reading, writing, and arithmetic. Desks are set in straight rows, and teachers are strict.

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But in other ways, the school is peculiar to today’s United States, particularly in how it reflects the complexity of the country’s laws on the politically charged subject of immigration.

It is in a shelter for children classified by the federal government as “unaccompanied minors” because they were without their parents when caught by immigration officials. Some were apprehended soon after crossing the Mexican-U.S. border, others were caught in raids by immigration authorities while working in the United States, and yet others were detained after being smuggled into this country by “coyotes” hired by parents who had previously come to the United States illegally. A few may have been victims of drug or sex trafficking.

Called Boystown, the shelter is run by Catholic Charities of Miami under contract with the federal government. The children live on the same grounds where Cuban children stayed during the “Operation Peter Pan” of the early 1960s, in which the U.S. government and Roman Catholic agencies brought 14,000 children to America without their parents after the Cuban government turned Communist.

The children’s stay at the school is short, an average of 25 days before being released to family in the United States, getting sent back to their countries, obtaining papers to stay in this country, turning 18, or in some other way having their status changed.

Others apprehended by U.S. Department of Homeland Security agents soon take their place.

“Almost every day new students appear, and we need to start with them and teach the others,” says Jose F. Hung, who has taught at Boystown for four years. “We prepare the students for more complex assignments, and they leave.”

During a sunny October morning, Sonia Gonzalez asks over and over, “Does anyone need help?” “¿Alguien necesita ayuda?” while teaching a vocabulary lesson to 23 teenagers at Boystown.

She, Mayra Tordera, and Mr. Hung are the three teachers assigned to Boystown from the Miami-Dade County school district. Cuban-Americans, they move back and forth between English and Spanish as they teach. All have state endorsements to teach English to speakers of other languages in addition to certification in either elementary or middle school.

Ms. Gonzalez teaches the students with the lowest academic ability, which includes six teenagers who can’t read. For the morning, she’s combined her class with the most advanced of the school’s three groups of students, who are usually taught by Ms. Tordera, so that Ms. Tordera can attend a workshop. Mr. Hung, as usual, is teaching the group whose academic level lies somewhere in the middle.

All told at this time, 46 children, 13 to 17, are living at Boystown, though a 7-year-old boy had recently departed. All but five—a Brazilian, a Chinese, two Haitians, and a Jamaican—are from Spanish-speaking countries. Twenty-nine are boys, 17 girls. The youths wear colorful polo shirts with the Catholic Charities logo and bluejeans.

Ms. Gonzalez asks her charges to find seven vocabulary words in a social studies reading, write a definition for each word (which they can copy from a glossary), write a synonym and antonym for the word, and copy a sentence that uses the word.

The youths work diligently for 45 minutes, but some produce very little. One Spanish-speaking teenager writes groups of letters that don’t make words in English or Spanish. The youngest, a 13-year-old seated next to her 15-year-old sister, writes words and erases them, peers at her sister’s paper, and then writes and erases again.

At the same time, the only two students who have attended U.S. schools and are fluent in English are flying through the assignment.

Unaccompanied Minors

Unacompanied Minors
Type of release 2004 2005 2006
Release to sponsor (usually family) 65% 67% 65%
Returned to country 19 22 23
Turned 18 6 8 9
Other 10 3 3

Other Facts and Figures

• About 1,050 are currently in the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

• Throughout 2005, 7,800 were at some point in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

• Seventy-four percent were male; 26 percent, female.

• During 2005, the average amount of time a child remained in the government’s care was 45 days. Preliminary statistics for 2006 show 6,400 children spent time in shelters

• Most come from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Others come primarily from Mexico, Brazil, Ecuador, and China.

SOURCE: Office of Refugee Resettlement, U.S. Department of Heath and Human Services

The teachers say it is a challenge to meet the needs of students who have such varied experiences—and to move beyond the basics. While teaching students how to find a range in a group of numbers, for example, Ms. Gonzalez patiently gives one-on-one attention to a teenager who can’t add.

It takes Ms. Tordera more than an hour to lead the combined class of lowest- and highest-level groups to read and understand five paragraphs in rudimentary English about how viruses cause illnesses. “This is a very low group,” she notes afterward. “We can’t teach them higher biology if they don’t know the basics.”

A 17-year-old Guatemalan says he has learned a lot in the six months he’s been at Boystown. His lengthy stay here is largely the result of not knowing anyone in the United States with whom federal officials can reunify him. The young man attended 1st and 2nd grades off and on in his home country before dropping out to work in a store and to sell caramels in the street, among other odd jobs.

The youth, who had crossed the border from Mexico on a freight train, was picked up by law-enforcement agents in Brownsville, Texas, after he had worked at an auto-body shop there for a month. The shop owners turned him into immigration authorities, the boy said.

But another student, a 16-year-old Jamaican who came to the United States when he was 7 and attended U.S. schools from 2nd through 9th grade, said he isn’t learning much at Boystown, where he’s been detained for five months. “Mostly it’s just math and English. I feel like I’m in 3rd grade.”

Teachers, however, make an effort to give the Jamaican youth more advanced material. Ms. Gonzalez hands him a preparation guide for the state’s standardized 10th grade math test, for example, after he finishes a math assignment.

Teachers use one- or two-page lessons or worksheets excerpted from a variety of textbooks. The lessons are generally self-contained because students are constantly coming and going.

“For those of you who were here last week …” Ms. Gonzalez prefaces the introduction to one lesson. At another point in the lesson, a student inquires about a boy who is missing.

“He came after school and said goodbye,” Ms. Gonzalez reports. “He was happy to go.”

Last year, 7,800 unaccompanied minors spent time in shelters under the custody of the U.S. government, up from 6,200 in 2004. The number dropped to 6,400 this year. Most come from Central America; one in four is younger than 14.

Martha E. Newton, the director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that oversees care for such children, says the numbers are down slightly this year because of stepped-up law enforcement against illegal immigration.

Most juveniles caught at the border are immediately returned to Mexico.

All the children who are placed at the shelters are in deportation proceedings that continue even after they leave them. Some are released into the custody of family members who are undocumented.

Americans who want to see stronger measures to curtail illegal immigration say the federal government’s policy of releasing minors to undocumented people encourages more illegal immigration. “Smugglers stopped at the border with children of all ages—even toddlers—know their charges will be conducted safely to the individual who summoned them,” argued Don Barnett, a fellow at the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, in a 2004 policy analysis.

Ground Rules

At the request of federal officials and the lawyers of an immigrant-advocacy organization that represents children at the Boystown shelter in Miami, Education Week agreed to restrictions on reporting and photographing children to obtain permission to visit.

Officials of the Office of Refugee Resettlement of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services asked the newspaper not to publish the names of minors now at the shelter or photos that would identify them. They said the government needs to protect their identities from people who could cause the children harm, such as smugglers who might try to collect money from them.

Lawyers for the Miami-based Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center were concerned that U.S. immigration lawyers or judges might get information that wouldn’t give a full picture of why the children came to the United States and that could, thus, hurt their chances of being able to stay. The reporter agreed to interview only those children at Boystown the lawyers selected and only in their presence. The lawyers did not allow the reporter to ask questions directly related to the children’s legal cases and status, such as where their parents live and why they came to the United States.

While they’re here, though, children living in the United States illegally are entitled to a free public education as a result of the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Plyler v. Doe. An agreement that came out of another Supreme Court case, Flores v. Reno, in 1993, says unaccompanied minors who are detained have the right to an education appropriate to their needs, including a chance to learn English. The pact says schooling should last for a full day, Monday through Friday, and include such core subjects as reading, social studies, math, and science, as well as physical education. Instruction is to be provided in the youths’ native language, as needed.Federal law does not, however, spell out which entity should carry out the schooling, according to Ms. Newton.

Sal Cavazos, the chief development officer for Southwest Key Program Inc., a nonprofit organization in Austin, Texas, that operates eight shelters for unaccompanied minors, argues that school districts should educate undocumented children in shelters as well as those who set foot in regular schools. “It would behoove the local education agencies to collaborate because many of these children end up in the public schools,” he said.

Southwest Key personnel have asked some of the districts near shelters run by their organization to provide schooling, but so far none has taken up the task, according to Alexia J. Rodriguez, Southwest Key’s chief operations officer.

Ms. Rodriguez has a different view from that of Mr. Cavazos. She surmises children at those shelters might be getting a better education with Southwest Key than if districts provided it. “My concern is that the school districts might not send their teachers with a lot of expertise,” Ms. Rodriguez said.

In Miami, the school system has stepped up to the plate. Since the mid-1990s, the Miami-Dade County district has provided classes to children at Boystown through its program for alternative schools.

Arthur Corrieri, the field program specialist for the Office of Refugee Resettlement in the Eastern region of the United States, believes the Boystown children get more highly qualified teachers and a lot more help through the Miami-Dade school system, such as extra tutoring and testing for disabilities, than they would if their school were run by a nonprofit organization.

School districts in New York City and Houston also provide schooling at shelters for unaccompanied minors. A comprehensive list of education providers at each of the nation’s 30 shelters wasn’t available from the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

At Boystown, the children live in locked dorms surrounded by surveillance cameras. During the day, one adult is on duty for every six children, who are escorted whenever they leave a building. When a girl needed a broom from the back porch of her dorm, a staff member unlocked the door, got the broom for her, then relocked the door.

Late last month, the shelter operators were trying to obtain permits to move the children to new quarters in Miami. The ribbon-cutting ceremony had already occurred.

The shelter provides all one needs, except la libertad, or freedom, says 18-year-old Dario José Avemdaño, a Colombian, who was detained at Boystown for eight months. Telfido Geovani Lopez, a 19-year-old Guatemalan who is sitting next to him here in a booth at the restaurant in southwest Miami where they work, agrees. Mr. Lopez was detained at Boystown for 14 months.

The fates of the two young men are unusual. With the help of pro bono lawyers, they obtained papers to live and work legally in the United States. Mr. Avemdaño was granted asylum because his father had physically abused him in Colombia, he said. Mr. Lopez obtained a green card with a visa that Congress set up in 1990 for children who have been abused, abandoned, or neglected and cannot be reunited with family, said Michelle Abarca, his lawyer from the Miami-based Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center.

“The longer the child is in the shelter, you can see their mental health deteriorate,” said Deborah Lee, one of center’s three lawyers who represent Boystown children. “They may get depressed. They are seeing all these kids leave and they wonder, ‘What’s happening about my case? Somehow I’m different.’ ”

Mr. Avemdaño and Mr. Lopez say it was hard to see other children depart while they stuck it out at Boystown. “The most difficult thing is to go to court,” says Mr. Avemdaño in Spanish, “because you don’t know what will happen.”

Still, they speak well of the Boystown school.

Mr. Avemdaño, who had attended 9th grade in Colombia, says it was wonderful to continue his education at the shelter. At Boystown, Mr. Lopez, who never knew his father and whose mother died when he was 8, had his first chance ever to go to school.

Back in Guatemala, he explains in Spanish, “if I didn’t work, I didn’t eat.” He was often homeless and sometimes abused by gangs, he says.

At Boystown, he learned to read and write.

Since leaving Boystown, Mr. Avemdaño and Mr. Lopez have continued their education while working long hours at the Cuban restaurant for about $8 an hour. They attend classes in English as a second language three times a week at an adult education center run by the Miami-Dade County public schools.

On a recent evening, Mr. Lopez takes a front-row seat in his class. Soon he hopes to know enough English to enroll in a class to prepare for the General Educational Development test.

Mr. Lopez is one of the few students in the class of working immigrants who have done their homework. He has a goal. He wants to attend a community college and eventually become either a social worker or a lawyer “like Michelle”—the lawyer who helped him stay legally in the United States.

A version of this article appeared in the November 08, 2006 edition of Education Week as ‘Unaccompanied Minors’ Land in School


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