Q&A: The Refugee Children—Where Will They Go To School?

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Brooklyn continues to receive hundreds of refugee students. How do they navigate the system? And is the system ready?

Photo of 26 Federal Plaza, the home of the New York City Immigration Court, on Dec. 9, 2014.

New York City schools are preparing to receive thousands of unaccompanied child migrants who have recently arrived in the United States, primarily from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Federal agencies refer to them as Unaccompanied Alien Children. More than 500 such children have been released to sponsors in Brooklyn alone in the last fiscal year, according to federal data from the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Where will they go to school? Here are a few Questions and Answers:

Q: How do the children find their way to the schools?

A: The Department of Homeland Security is usually the agency that refers children for placement to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Children are housed in temporary shelters—public or private—until they are released to sponsors, who are mostly family members. At that point, according the Department of Education, they expect resettled children to attend schools in the area of their sponsors.

Q: Where are these temporary shelters and who runs them?

A: According to the mayor’s office, children are housed at shelters operated by the Office of Refugee Resettlement as well as “facilities operated by private child welfare organizations.” The average length of stay is 35 days and 85% of children are placed with their families, according to a May 2014 report.

Kenneth Wolfe, a public affairs official within the Department of Health and Human Services, wrote over email that “there are 20 Unaccompanied Alien Children program shelters in the state of New York, with a capacity of 1,175 beds.”

Within the 2014 fiscal year, the Office of Refugee Resettlement handled the housing and placement of about 5,700 children to sponsors within New York State. That leaves a significant requirement for private organizations to assist with temporary housing.

Q: How many children are we talking about?

The Office of Refugee Resettlement released 2009 unaccompanied children to sponsors in New York City between October 2013 and September 2014, according to federal data. Queens, with 902, received the most children, followed by Brooklyn (535), the Bronx (495), and Manhattan (77). (No data is available for Staten Island since counties that receive 50 children or less are not counted.)

Nationally, the ORR oversaw the placement of about 54,000 children in fiscal year 2014, more than double the number of unaccompanied children from the previous year.

But the Department of Education does not oversee the distribution of children among individual schools or track unaccompanied migrants after their release to sponsors. City agencies also eschew tracking, tabulating, or otherwise monitoring immigrant children released via the court.

Q: Where do New York City agencies fit into this process?

A host of city agencies have mobilized to make contact with incoming migrant children to enroll them in city schools and to help them access city social services. However, state laws intended to ensure equal access to public education mean that in practice, the city faces difficulties ensuring that assistance is directly targeting this specific refugee population. City agencies have virtually no points to directly contact migrant children and families after children are released to sponsors.

The best place to reach migrant children and the sponsors caring for them is at the New York Immigration Court, which has set up special priority dockets for recently arrived child migrants. The Department of Education has dispatched representatives to the court to help enroll children in city schools and provide information about English Language Learner programs. (The DOE describes English Language Learner students as “students who speak a language other than English at home and score below proficient on English assessments when they enter (the New York City) school system.”)

Other city agencies, such as the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Health and Hospital Corporation, have also sent representatives to the court to connect children with medical and mental health services, according to the mayor’s office.

Q: How does the Department of Education address the needs of this new student population after they are released to sponsors?

The English Language Learner programs provide the only way the department can reach refugee students after they are released to sponsors. Twenty-eight percent of the city’s ELL students are in Brooklyn, according to a 2013 department report, the second highest group by borough after Queens. More than half of ELL students in Brooklyn are foreign-born.

The English Language Learner population at any school might incorporate unaccompanied child migrants as well as legal immigrants and others. “We’re giving these services to anyone who needs them, whether they’re unaccompanied minors or not,” said a Department of Education official who declined to be identified.

Q: Who decides where the children go to school?

The Department of Education says that they expect children to attend schools in the area in which they are resettled.

As for the schools themselves, they cannot seek to determine the immigration status of students. This is in order to avoid a “chill” that discourages public school enrollment, according to a 2010 memo from the State Education Department. State education law guarantees all residents free public education, including undocumented children. Federal Justice and Education Department officials have previously warned school districts across the country against checking students’ immigration status, saying that such practices “contravene federal law.”

Q: Does that prevent the city from finding and helping these children once they are settled?

Once incoming children are registered at city schools, the Department of Education plans to support the incoming population by targeting city schools with high numbers of English Language Learners. The DOE plans to offer weekend workshops at targeted schools for students and families to encourage school and health insurance enrollment, according to the department spokesperson.

The workshops are also intended to continue to connect students and the families caring for them with city social services like legal “screenings” and mental health referrals, according to the DOE.

Q: Have the schools been welcoming?

Some schools in New York State have recently turned away immigrant students, prompting a review by state officials, according to The Associated Press. And the New York Civil Liberties Union recently released a study finding that 139 school districts in the state may have illegally obstructed the enrollment of immigrant children. None of the districts named are within New York City, though several are in Long Island’s Suffolk and Nassau Counties. Those two counties received the most unaccompanied migrant children in the state over the last fiscal year—1,600 and 1,446, respectively.

Though New York City schools have perennial problems with overcrowding, large class sizes, and with keeping pace with the growth of its student population, the Department of Education official dismissed the possibility that the incoming migrant students would negatively impact the city’s school system. “We’re very equipped for handling this influx,” the official said. “And that’s why we were chosen as one of the cities to do this. We have schools that get newcomers all the time—this is one of the things we do all the time.”

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