Child immigrants unlikely to flood any one school district

Child immigrants unlikely to flood any one school district

(District of Columbia) Despite growing concerns that the influx of unaccompanied child immigrants into the U.S. will overwhelm local government services in some communities, social advocates say public schools are not likely to be part of that turmoil.

Under existing federal law and currently policies, children illegally crossing the U.S. border – except those coming from Mexico or Canada – are most often reunited with a parent or relative already living here after a screening and resettlement process. While as many as 35,000 minors from Central America have crossed in recent weeks – the impact on any one school district isn’t likely to be significant.

“The kids in our shelters go everywhere,” said one official working alongside the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement but not authorized to speak on the record. “A majority of these kids are likely to be reunited with a parent or family member already in the country, but that could be anywhere from Texas to California to Minnesota to New York.”

Driven by escalating violence of street gangs and drug cartels that dominate many parts of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, an enormous wave of illegal immigrants have sought passage into the U.S. through Texas, Arizona and California. Many of the immigrants are children, many under the age of 10 and as young as five and often traveling without any adults.

Federal immigration officials have been scrambling in recent weeks to expand the country’s intake system to provide immediate needs, such as food and shelter, as well as timely resettlement hearings used to decide whether immigrants will be deported or allowed to remain here.

While federal law requires that those from Mexico and Canada be sent back to their home country immediately, all others are detained in federally-funded shelters pending medical and mental health screenings, as well as asylum or immigration proceedings to determine their future destinations.

Expectations are that many will be allowed to stay – which has sparked protests in many communities. Indeed, Gov. Rick Perry ordered state guardsmen to the Texas border this week as part of a “get tough” policy on illegal immigration in his state.

At some point, many of the immigrant children allowed into the country will become students of public schools – another requirement of federal law.

However, the impact of the influx is likely to be spread across the country – just as are family members of the minors – rather than consolidated in a few key areas or school districts, officials say.

Still, the current crisis has prompted the release in recent months of updated federal guidance to school districts reminding them of their legal obligation to enroll and provide educational services to all children, regardless of race, citizenship or immigration status.

“School districts that either prohibit or discourage, or maintain policies that have the effect of prohibiting or discouraging, children from enrolling in schools because they or their parents/guardians are not U.S. citizens or are undocumented may be in violation of federal law,” reads one fact sheet released in May by the civil rights divisions of both the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education.

The new guidance, according to the White House, “emphasizes the need for flexibility in accepting documents” that prove a child’s age, residency and immigration status. It also lists multiple examples of the types of documents that may be accepted as well as pointing out scenarios in which a child may not be denied enrollment.

For example, while a school district may request proof – such as utility bills or lease agreements – of residency within its boundaries, the district may not inquire about either the parents’ or child’s citizenship or immigration status as a means to determine residency within the district. In addition, a school district may not deny a homeless child (including a homeless child who is undocumented) enrollment because he or she cannot provide the required documents to establish residency.

When it comes to proof of a child’s age, school officials may request documentation to show that a student falls within the district’s minimum and maximum age requirements – a birth or baptismal certificate, an adoption record or an affidavit from a parent, for example.

However, according to the guidance, although a school district may request documents such as those listed above to verify a child’s age, a district may not prevent or discourage a child from enrolling in or attending school because he or she lacks a birth certificate or has records that indicate a foreign place of birth, such as a foreign birth certificate.

Also, while school districts may request a student’s social security number during enrollment, providing one is voluntary and a child not supplying a social security number may not be barred from enrolling in or attending school.

According to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, an operational division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, it expects to handle a total of 60,000 unauthorized alien children in 2014, up from 24,668 last year.

The children come primarily from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Most are over 14 and approximately three quarters of them are boys, according to the agency.

Managing Editor Tom Chorneau contributed to this story.

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