New York

Access to education a challenge for NY immigrants

New York's attorney general says his office has forced nearly two dozen school districts in the state to address complaints that immigrant children were denied or delayed access to school, but an advocate for unaccompanied minors from Central America insists problems still exist.

"I would say definitely that the complaints have quieted down, but my sense is the challenges remain," says Walter Barrientos, the Long Island coordinator for the advocacy group Make the Road New York. "Parents are still coming to us regularly with complaints."

The Associated Press has found 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 — essentially an academic dead end, and one that can violate federal law.

Since fall 2013, the federal government has placed nearly 104,000 unaccompanied minors with adult sponsors in communities nationwide, where they are expected to attend school while they seek legal status in immigration court.

In New York, approximately 10,500 unaccompanied minors have been placed with sponsors, including about 5,200 on suburban Long Island. Experts say many school districts have faced difficulties finding the resources and staff to meet the educational needs of these students, who often carry emotional trauma, have gaps in their education and are older than other English-language learners.

Fermin Santos, a construction worker living in Glen Cove, New York, said his 16-year-old daughter Fatima Abigail Santos arrived in the United States from El Salvador in December 2015 as an unaccompanied minor and was subsequently placed with him. He said when he tried to enroll her in the local high school regular curriculum administrators placed her in night classes.

He said he was hesitant to complain because he did not want to be questioned about not being in the country legally. Glen Cove Superintendent Maria L. Rianna said in a statement students and their families are assisted by guidance counselors and translators who work together to review educational history and place students "within a supportive learning environment."

Federal data reviewed by The Associated Press shows the vast majority of immigrant children who arrive alone at the U.S. border are placed by the government with adults who are in the country illegally. The government has long said it places the children with family and friends regardless of immigration status.

In February, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said his investigators found that the Westbury School District on Long Island had an unwritten policy of excluding English language learners over the age of 16 from the district's high school and diverting these students into non-degree alternative education programs.

Westbury has since agreed to retain an ombudsman and independent monitor to ensure that the district places students properly. The nearby Hempstead school district and 20 others in upstate New York have made similar agreements with the attorney general since January 2015.

"Education is the bedrock of our society and every child — no matter where they were born — deserves the chance to attend school and seek a diploma," Schneiderman said in a statement last week. "But there is still more work to do."