This is the first of a four-part series.
Early in the 2014-15 school year, when it was clear that a surprising number of immigrant children would enroll in U.S. schools due to the surge of unaccompanied minors who crossed the southern border over the summer, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that advocates a hard line on illegal immigration, estimated that the cost of educating these students could be around $761 million nationally.
As that information filtered into the media, it prompted the question: Could our school districts handle the cost and the needs associated with this population segment?
Fox News Latino reached out to schools nationwide seeking an answer. In the following series, we take a look at how a few districts have handled the influx. Turns out, it’s complicated. Each district varies enough that their experiences are individual. Not all had large prior Latino populations, or similar infrastructure – including space, teachers for English-language learners and sizable budgets from large tax bases.
Some districts experienced concentrated enrollment at select schools, others experienced broader distribution. Some schools were located in districts with politicians who were openly supportive of immigration; others were not.
“With a very diverse group, it is hard to draw conclusions,” said Margie McHugh, the director of the Migration Policy Institute’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy. “Even in the same school, people might disagree whether children entering are going to be a ‘burden’ and cost additional money or be well served.”
Let’s start with how many children we are talking about. Districts estimates are not exact because it is illegal for schools to ask about immigration status. Commonly cited numbers from the Office of Refugee Resettlement track where children who were in government custody wound up living, but they don’t reflect school enrollment. That agency estimates that 53,518 children crossed the U.S.-Mexico border between October 2013 and September 2014.
Most of those students reunited with family in Texas (7,409), New York (5,955), California (5,831) or Florida (5,445). Assuming all the children that the agency tallied enrolled in school, they make up less than .1 percent of the 54,876,000 enrolled in elementary and high school students across the U.S.
Even though the overall number of students may seem small, certain districts – and even certain schools – saw enormous leaps in enrollment. For example, one-quarter of the unaccompanied minors in Florida were concentrated in Miami, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement. And representatives from the district say that many of those students were concentrated in one school.
The documents required to enroll these students also vary. Civil rights groups and the Department of Justice joined forces to produce a widely distributed fact sheet detailing the illegalities of questioning a student's immigration status and requiring certain documentation.
Not all schools complied with federal law. In New York, the New York Civil Liberties Union found that 20 percent of a sample of 139 schools asked for documentation that isn't required under federal law.
Legal advocates said that asking for documents, such as social security numbers, could deter students from enrolling. While such requirements could be problematic, advocacy groups in several districts that asked for documentation did not report enrollment problems.
However, Hempstead – a Long Island town with a large Central American population – proved an exception. In that district, 33 undocumented students enrolled in school but were not allowed to attend classes for months, until the students protested. District officials claimed that there wasn't staff or space to accommodate the students.
An additional 60 were not allowed to enroll in the school, according to a report from the New York State Attorney General's office. The attorney general announced last week an agreement with the district that an ombudsman and an independent monitor would make sure that the school's enrollment practices comply with the law.
Sometimes, it's not just documentation that gets in the way of school enrollment. In North Carolina, legal groups including the Southern Poverty Law Center and the North Carolina Justice Center filed a civil rights complaint with the Department of Justice against the Buncome County and Union County school districts. They reported clients being turned away from schools illegally because of their age.
“These children should not have to face excuse after excuse from school officials who simply do not want them to ever set foot in a North Carolina classroom,” said Caren Short, a Southern Poverty Law Center staff attorney.
One of the plaintiffs, a 17-year-old girl, said her local high school denied her placement because of her age, according to the complaint. She alleges school officials told her she should be placed in middle school because of her academic background. She then tried enrolling in a middle school, where the guidance counselor told her she was too old for such placement. North Carolina law says students under 21 are entitled to a public education in their district.
Another student represented in the complaint is a 17-year-old boy who was referred to a GED program by the local high school he tried to enroll in. The GED program at a community college said he was too young. He tried again to enroll in the high school and was ultimately successful. The complaint is still under review.
Bowers said his office still encounters clients who are being told they are too old to enroll in school or that they have to wait for next year. Part of the difficulty may be tied to the political climate that surrounds the schools.
In North Carolina, some counties – like Rowan, Brunswick and Surry – approved similar resolutions that called upon the government to adopt tighter immigration controls. In those resolutions, there is a section that says schools are getting taxed by these students.
“I find it unfortunate that we see a lot of political rhetoric around both sides of the immigration issue,” said Mark Bowers, an attorney for the Immigrant Justice Program, one of the groups that filed the complaint. He added that the children are being held accountable for choices that their parents have made often times in the face of dangerous circumstances such as abuse or gang activity. “That they are used as fodder for political ideology is untenable.”
In Tuesday's installment: Schools in South Florida have taken in a large number of the undocumented minors and many are feeling the strain financially.
Soni Sangha is a freelance writer based in New York City.