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Migrant kids face challenges, but schools a safe haven

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Migrant kids face challenges, but schools a safe haven

Picture of Richard Bammer
The Reporter
Monday, May 16, 2016

It is the merry month of May, but, when reading a recent Associated Press story about school districts nationwide keeping migrant children from enrolling, I thought it must be the April described in T.S. Eliot’s 1922 poem “The Waste Land,” as “the cruelest month.”

The AP report indicated that in at least 35 districts in 14 states, hundreds of unaccompanied minors from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have been discouraged from enrolling in schools or pressured into what advocates and attorneys argue are separate but unequal alternative programs. In other words, an academic dead end, and one that can violate federal law.

In one case in Memphis, Tenn., instead of enrolling one of the 16-year-old migrant boys in high school, the cash-strapped district sent him to an adult school that offered English classes only a few hours a week.

But before the boy could even register, the state shut down the GED and English-language programs over concerns that few students were graduating, in essence, all but ending his chances for a formal education.

To their immense credit, America’s schools are one of the few government institutions in which migrant youths are guaranteed services. However, federal officials have, so far, not set aside enough money or oversight to check whether that happens or not, in part because school districts, like Vacaville and Dixon, are locally governed.

Since the fall of 2013, when the first waves of Central American children began to show up at U.S. borders in the Southwest and the West Coast, some 104,000 unaccompanied minors have been placed with adult sponsors in hundreds of different communities. There, they are expected to attend school while they seek legal status in immigration courts.

With the dramatic surge of illegal crossings, with the children reportedly fleeing violence in their native communities, the U.S. Education and Justice departments issued guidance, reminding school districts that a 1982 Supreme Court ruling established that states cannot deny children a free public education, regardless of immigration status.

Of course, getting some districts to do what they are supposed to do is not so easy as ABC.

First of all, many of the unaccompanied minors do not understand their rights once they are in the United States. The students or their advocates can sue districts or file complaints with federal authorities.

As a result of the increased student numbers, many financially beleaguered school districts scramble to find the money and teachers to meet the educational needs of the students.

In several states, from California and Massachusetts to Mississippi and Texas, for instance, social workers and attorneys say migrant students have been barred from enrolling, kept out of class for months or sent to reform schools and adult programs. Just how some of those students are doing is unknown because the federal government does not release data on counties where fewer than 50 minors have been placed. 

But the federal government has made an effort to help school districts meet the needs of the migrant students.

In August 2014, California schools chief Tom Torlakson set aside $3.5 million in federal funding (Title III) to help schools that experience an increase in unaccompanied migrant children. School districts are obligated to serve every child in the Golden State regardless of where they come from or where they were born, he noted.

“We don’t make immigration policy in our classrooms; we help every child who comes through our doors,” Torlakson said in a press release at the time. “With our help and support, I am confident that California’s schools will be able to provide a safe haven for children waiting for authorities to reunite them with their families.”

In 2015, Congress included $14 million to help county school districts in which the government placed more than 50 unaccompanied minors. (California received $1.82 million of that amount.) However, that translates to $175 for each child placed in those counties since October 2013. Many district leaders say such paltry dollar figures burden them with too much of the costs.

The unaccompanied minors, even though they are not U.S. citizens, are entitled to due process under the law while the courts figure out their immigration status.

In the meantime, district leaders and teachers, as they do day in and out in California, welcome all who sit down in a public school classroom and try to do the best they can.

[This story was originally published by The Reporter.]

Photo by Brittany Stevens via Flickr