DENVER – A fraction of the thousands of children who've fled poverty and violence in Central America alone in recent years are now scattered across Colorado, Wyoming and Montana living with relatives and other sponsors.
The Rocky Mountain states have taken in less than 1 percent of the more than 100,000 unaccompanied minors who crossed the border from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras since the fall of 2013.
The bulk — 860 — have ended up in Colorado. According to federal data, at least a third of them went to homes in four Front Range counties — Arapahoe, Denver, El Paso and Weld.
However, the data and the experience of immigration lawyers representing these children — whom immigration lawyers say range from age 6 through teenagers — suggest that the rest are scattered all around the state.
Sponsors in Wyoming have taken in 19 unaccompanied minors since 2013. Montana, meanwhile, became home to three migrants since 2013 though none have arrived yet so far this year.
All children — including those living in the U.S. illegally — must attend school through at least the 8th grade or until they turn 16 under compulsory education laws in all 50 states.
It's not clear exactly where the children in Montana or Wyoming have ended up or what schools they might be enrolled in because the government only provides detailed county-by-county figures if more than 50 children were placed in a county to protect the children's privacy.
State education departments don't track these students and school districts depend on students to volunteer information about their background because they're not supposed to ask about their immigration status.
When Colorado got $77,000 in federal funding last spring to help pay for unaccompanied minors to learn English, officials didn't know which district had the most either and so divided up the money among school districts that had reported having refugees, which can also include students in the country legally from anywhere in the world.
In Colorado, two districts with extensive experience working with immigrant students from around the world — Denver and Harrison in Colorado Springs — say unaccompanied minors enrolled in their schools are getting intensive help learning English and also are receiving counseling to deal with trauma and adjusting to their new lives.
Some students who have been placed with relatives or family friends, who may be struggling with their own problems, don't feel accepted, said Jorge Robles, executive director of the district's English Language Acquisition Department.
Denver Public Schools estimates it has about 50 of these students. An exact count isn't possible because schools rely on students and families to volunteer the information.
With the number of unaccompanied minors entering the country expected to increase, Denver plans to add newcomer centers designed to help refugees at two schools in neighborhoods where the Central American children have mostly settled though they will accommodate any recent arrivals, Robles said.
The four existing welcome centers, which offer smaller classes and additional support staff, are in neighborhoods where refugees from Southeast Asia and Africa have settled.
In Colorado Springs, affordable housing has tended to attract many recent immigrants to the mainly low-income Harrison district, where about 17 percent of students overall need help learning English when they enroll, compared with 5 percent in surrounding El Paso County.
The district has four unaccompanied minors studying mathematics, language arts, social studies and science in classes with other students who have little knowledge of English at Harrison High School, district chief of staff Christine Lyle said.
Like other students, the recent arrivals from Central America can take advantage of three free meals a day and a school health clinic and don't have to pay extra to play sports. The migrant children, who face deportation unless they prevail in court, also work with case workers from Lutheran Family Services to help them cope with challenges in and out of school, she said.
The migrant children tend to be older than most students who need help learning English, sometimes speak an indigenous language in addition to Spanish and may have gaps in their education. Nationally The Associated Press has found that at least 35 districts in 14 states have discouraged hundreds of them from enrolling in school or pressured them into alternative programs.
Lyle said that's not the case in her district.
"If they're school age, we're going to meet them where they are," she said.
Derek Schroeder, an AmeriCorps lawyer who works with Catholic Charities in Denver to provide free representation for children who arrived before they turned 16, said most of his clients are attending school or trying to enroll.
"A good portion of them are really excited to be here and really excited to be able to go to school here," he said.
Stephanie Izaguirre, an immigration lawyer in Colorado Springs, said she has encouraged the 40 minors she has worked with to enroll and stay in school, partly because it helps them adapt to American culture.
However, she said some schools do not want the older teens to enroll and sometimes outside pressures get in the way. One of her clients dropped out of high school to work as a roofer to pay the rent after the older brother he was placed with ended up in jail.
"They have a lot on their plate besides school," she said.