Schools after the surge: Rush of undocumented students became fodder for immigration debate

This is the last of a four-part series.

In the wake of an increased enrollment of unaccompanied minors who traveled from Central America to the U.S., often to escape violence and reunite with family members, it is hard to get a clear picture of how schools have fared.

Part of the reason is that each district differs demographically, politically and financially. But another part is that the issue is so politically volatile that it varies on whom you ask.

In Virginia, Fairfax and Prince William district representatives said the number of unaccompanied minors they received this school year was relatively small and the districts have long taken in refugees and immigrants from many parts of the world. For that reason, they said, their districts are equipped to deal with the needs of these populations and, in the case of these Central American children, were able to increase their services relatively seamlessly.

“We have not heard from school divisions that have said that this has stretched us beyond our capacity and we are not able to provide the services we are supposed to provide these students,” said Charles Pyle, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education.

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However, politicians drew attention to a lack of federal support. Prince William County Supervisor Peter Candland posted an online petition asking the government to pick up the tab on per-pupil spending and the counties of Loundoun and Fairfax decided to study the impact the students had on the schools.

Some argue that the discussion of cost is more just a rhetorical ploy to argue for and against immigration. Schools, tasked with educating children, are not likely to admit shortcomings, points out Ira Mehlman, spokesperson for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a group against illegal immigration that estimates that the cost of educating these students could be around $761 million nationally.

And, he said, the limited tax bases of schools in high immigrant communities, coupled with the high cost of educating children, can lead to challenges. His group presented a report in February stating that schools in Alexandria, Virginia, saw a 125 percent growth since 2005 in the number of students learning English. Also, according to the report, Fairfax County, Virginia, carries the largest cost burden in the area, spending more than $676 million a year on education and services for more than 33,000 students learning English.

“There are quite a number of school systems, I suspect, sucking it up and making the best of it,” Mehlman said. “I suspect it comes at services and quality of education of other kids.”

Ultimately, a number of school administrators and politicians from various parts of the country called for federal financial support. The government responded by granting the Department of Health and Human Services $14 million to help school districts offset the cost of unaccompanied minors. That funding is a small part of the $1.01 trillion federal spending bill that will sustain the government until September.

While politicians used the enrollment of these students to question immigration policy, others took a different approach.

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio worked with advocates to present options for legal, health and social resources to unaccompanied minors when they would show up for immigration proceedings. Representatives from the Board of Education were also in the courthouse to enroll children in school.

In July, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins volunteered three sites within his city limits to be a shelter for 2,000 unaccompanied minors. Ultimately, the number of children would slow and the proposed shelters were never utilized — still, it was a bold move. Fellow Democrats opposed his plan, as did Republicans. Even politicians in surrounding counties opposed it and, at the time, it seemed doubtful that then-Gov. Rick Perry, who historically had a tough stance against immigration, would be supportive.

But Jenkins, who some months later tried to allay fears about Ebola by visiting a quarantined  Dallas family, wound up knocking on doors of people neighboring the sites.

By stepping in front of the immigration debate, Jenkins says the town was able to derail opposition.

“Whatever gets out there early and begins to steer the narrative tends to make a big difference in how the narrative works,” Jenkins explained.

In the Dallas’ large school district, the students were distributed fairly evenly. That, coupled with Jenkins message, helped steer conversation to a more positive tone, said Vanna Slaughter, director of immigration and legal services for Catholic Charities of Dallas.

“I have not heard one family tell me they’ve had trouble with anything related to school,” Slaughter said, definitively. “I can’t say that’s been one of our issues at all.”

Part 1: How they've dealt with 2014's flood of undocumented minors

Part 2: Swamped by migrant kids, Miami-Dade district seeks more funding

Part 3: Districts in Louisiana hit hard by flood of unexpected students