Young Immigrant Challenges in U.S. Public Schools

Many migrants, especially unaccompanied youth, face uncertain paths in detention and after their release in local communities. Schools are often the first and sometimes the only places they can turn for resources. Research shows that everyday educators have been left to deal with the aftermath of recent political charades, as well as a broken immigrant system, racialized immigration surveillance, deplorable detention facility conditions, and lack of access to educational and social resources for young people.

To enroll in public U.S. schools, families must first provide multiple documents and navigate complicated systems. For unaccompanied newcomers, providing proof of residence, a birth certificate, and vaccination records can be a considerable obstacle. Some districts in the United States have decided not to require documentation, with one district official explaining, “We have a big issue with immigration taking away all of their documents, and not providing them with the proper paperwork, especially in detention. Most of the time, the unaccompanied youth have nothing. Zero.”

Another respondent echoed the difficulty of registering students who were detained on arrival in the United States by saying, “When kids are released from detention to a sponsor [family member or distant relative]. They don’t even have anything showing that they’re the parent or relative. We have to dig through the immigration-related paperwork packets that they do have.” Online registration systems preclude immigrant families due to language barriers as well. Between the complicated nature of the immigration system and the seemingly arbitrary requirements for enrolling in school, “connecting the dots” is all one can do.

Although unaccompanied children have a right to attend school, it is more difficult to make claims on appropriate services. State and local policymakers contribute to these difficulties when there are unclear resources or shortages of staff to support newcomers, and multiple governmental, and local agencies involved. One educator noted, “There’s resources, but they’ve not been well-coordinated to meet these students’ needs.” As I talk to individuals who interact with unaccompanied youth, I hear how insufficient staffing and inadequate capacity is common, and often the bureaucratic nature of school systems makes it difficult to access legal, financial, or mental health services.

A counselor proclaimed in the Mid-Atlantic, “Let’s not pretend these families are not here” as a step toward finding solutions. Rather than give undue attention to the politics and spectacles of flying immigrants to random locations like the Martha’s Vineyard incident, any policy to improve the lives unaccompanied newcomer minors must address the considerable obstacles these youth encounter before and after migrating to the United States, the need for coordinated resources. In other words, actors in education systems and social service must communicate and partner to coordinate efforts.

Broadly, coordination efforts would ensure resources are properly allocated across federal, state, and local educational systems. Some agencies have already been providing guidance for how to enroll unaccompanied immigrant students. Further support is needed, such as federal resources, legal assistance, mental health care, and health insurance. From there, school districts can work to improve staffing and service coordination. In many instances, participants shared that the burden of supporting is in the “hands of a few” when it should be the district and schools bearing the load. To be humane toward these young people is to “not pretend they’re not here,” but to welcome and value them.

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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