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Unaccompanied immigrants put heavy strain on schools, charities

Deb Erdley
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New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch sits in on a bilingual kindergarten class at Washington-Rose Elementary School in Roosevelt, N.Y., on Oct. 23, 2014. Tisch and other state officials recently ordered a compliance review of suburban New York City school districts enrollment policies and procedures for unaccompanied minors and immigrant children following reports that several dozen children who had recently arrived from Central America were not admitted to a Long Island high school because of overcrowding.

Cash-strapped public schools and other nonprofit agencies across the country are struggling to take care of thousands of unaccompanied Central American children and teens who flooded the United States’ border, officials say.

The number of undocumented children streaming into the country has slowed, but the problem of what to do with the 45,029 who had crossed the border as of Sept. 30 has shifted from the Border Patrol to schools and agencies in every state.

Critics say the government is reluctant to underwrite costs — millions of dollars for some school districts — or even to share information with schools that must enroll youngsters — regardless of their immigration status — and the charities that could assist the children, who are ineligible for Medicaid, food stamps or public assistance.

“If ever there was an example where the federal government should be bearing the cost, this was it,” said Margie McHugh, director of the Center of Immigration Policy for the Migration Policy Institute, an independent think tank in Washington that analyzes the movement of people worldwide.

The law allows the children to remain in the United States in the custody of sponsors — typically family members or friends — while awaiting immigration hearings. Those hearings could be months or years away.

Pinpointing the location of the children and their sponsors is difficult by design, said spokeswoman Lisa Raffonelli of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement.

“These children may have histories of abuse or may be seeking safety from threats of violence. They may have been trafficked or smuggled,” Raffonelli wrote in an email. The agency “cannot release information about individual children that could compromise the child’s location or identity.”

The agency makes public the names of counties where more than 50 kids were relocated.

In Pennsylvania, which accepted 541 youngsters, the government identifies only Philadelphia, with 166, and Montgomery County, with 72, as destinations. The other 300 could be living in any of the state’s 65 other counties. Neither the state Department of Education nor the Department of Public Welfare know where they are.

“The federal government isn’t required to share information with us until (youngsters) go through the hearing process. We license some of these facilities that house them (before they go to sponsors), but we can’t get any information,” said Kait Gillis, a Welfare Department spokeswoman.

Growing caseload

Many say the exodus of children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras was sparked by President Obama’s decision last fall to allow children with families legally in the United States to come here. The administration expanded a law enacted under the Bush administration that was meant to combat human trafficking.

Some youngsters sought refuge from brutal gangs and drug cartels. Few spoke English; some spoke only indigenous languages.

Others had little schooling, even in their primary language. Many hoped to reunite with parents or siblings who had traveled north years ago — parents they hadn’t seen in years who might have new families, said Cathi Tillman, a licensed social worker and family therapist who oversees La Puerta Abierta/The Open Door in Philadelphia.

The agency’s bilingual therapists, schooled in Latino culture, provide free counseling to youngsters and families in need. Tillman worries about the children who don’t get help or end up at agencies that aren’t equipped to deal with their problems.

“It’s tricky. It’s like doing brain surgery with peoples’ hearts and souls,” she said.

The Open Door’s caseload more than doubled during the past year, mostly by word-of-mouth referrals from shelters, legal aid workers, schools and families, Tillman said.

Costly to schools

The influx of these children can be overwhelming. In the Indian River School District in southern Delaware, officials had no idea what was going on when 70 students from Guatemala began showing up at a high school this year.

“A lot of them had very limited English skills and very limited education in their homeland. And some only spoke a Spanish dialect,” said district spokesman David Maull.

Indian River started a special Accelerated Preliterate English Language Learner program with two bilingual teachers, a physical education teacher, and two bilingual paraprofessionals. School board member Donald Hattier estimated its cost at about $1 million a year.

“By and large, they tend to be extremely well-behaved kids who cause little to no problem. But they are still kids. They still need to be educated,” Hattier said.

In suburban New Orleans, enrollment in Jefferson Parish School District’s English Language Learners program jumped from 4,723 to 5,700 students this fall, some of them the nearly 600 youngsters from Central America who joined families there.

“We saw a huge increase in eighth- and ninth-graders coming into the school this summer, at various education levels and languages. Predominantly it was Spanish, but for some, Spanish is their second language,” said Karina Castillo, executive director of Jefferson Parish’s multilingual learning program.

Officials pegged the increased cost of the program at $4.6 million. The district has 47,000 students.

Philadelphia schools took in 450 second-language students last year and 450 more this year. During that time, the number of kids from the three Central American countries in the district increased from 18 to 50 — making their impact on the program minimal.

Hard to reach

Some who tried to reach out to the youngsters encountered frustrating situations.

In West Virginia, where 26 youths were released to sponsors, Mark Sliter-Hays, executive director of Catholic Charities of West Virginia, recently announced the agency no longer would accept contributions earmarked for undocumented Central American children.

“We felt uncomfortable, as good stewards, to ask for gift cards or other things when we don’t know how to get them out to families or kids who need help,” he said.

Maryland took in more than 3,300 children and teens, and built a Web portal to link families and charities.

But, said Patricia Chiancone, an international student counselor in the sprawling Prince George’s County School District: “Even when we have funding, there is a shortage of (English as a second language) teachers. We still have vacancies.”

Debra Erdley is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or [email protected].

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