Family Separation a Big Issue for Kids Migrating from Central America

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Guatemalan children

Micky Wiswedel

Many immigrant children have traveled far from their families, often unaccompanied. Pictured is a group of children in Guatemala.

Last week, a group of 10 people sat in the Western Sizzlin restaurant in the small mountain city of Dalton, Ga., the Daily Citizen newspaper reported. They listened to the school superintendent talk about the 40 or so kids from El Salvador and Guatemala — kids who traveled unaccompanied to the United States — who’ve been enrolled in the school system in the past year.

Talk had circulated among some residents that the kids who crossed the border illegally should not be made welcome.

After the meeting, however, Helen Crawford, a member of the League of Women Voters of the Dalton Area, the organization that invited the superintendent, spoke to a local newspaper reporter in some exasperation.

“Everyone seems to be getting upset and carried away about something that isn’t quite the problem they’ve made of it.”

“This seems to be a fairly benign situation,” she told the Daily Citizen. “There isn’t a real negative impact on our community.”

As the school year gets under way, migrant kids who speak little English and who have endured epic journeys to the United States are settling into communities and entering school.

For teachers and youth workers, the important issue is not whether to assist newcomer kids, but how to do it.

In the Washington, D.C., metro area, Robin Hamby, a family specialist with the Fairfax County Public Schools, has written a curriculum for an out-of-school program to address what she sees as one of the greatest needs: helping the children and their families deal with their long separation.

Other districts with high numbers of immigrants have special schools, often called newcomer schools, to teach English and help kids learn to navigate in a new culture.

For example, San Francisco International High School has an enrollment of about 400 kids this year, and 20 percent are unaccompanied minors from Central America, according to the school. The nonprofit Refugee Transitions provides after-school activities there.

Houston Independent School District, the largest school district in Texas and seventh-largest in the United States, operates two newcomer schools, Liberty High School and Las Americas Middle School.

“We don’t close our doors to anyone,” said Mariana Pineda Navarro, a senior writer in the district’s media relations department. “I think we have set an example.”

“The city of Houston is very welcoming to these types of kids,” she said.

Reuniting with strangers

Hamby, of Fairfax County Public Schools, has been addressing the needs of Central American kids in a very specific way.

About three years ago, she began noticing problems among a group of students.

“They were having difficulty acculturating,” she said.

Their parents had migrated to the United States to find work and the children came later to join them, often traveling with smugglers called coyotes.

Not only did the kids need to learn English and get oriented to a new culture, but “they were having to adjust to a brand-new family or a parent they hadn’t seen in years,” Hamby said.

This year, as increased numbers of kids have come across the border, Hamby has seen an increase in the number of  children under 12, she said.

To the newcomer kids, everything is a new adjustment, she said. The cold weather, the snow. The food, the smells, the noises, the “humongous school,” she said.

The kids are also homesick, she said. Many miss their grandparents or other relatives who raised them.

Teenagers often expect to get work immediately, she said.

“They expect to emigrate and get jobs,” she said. To them, the road to prosperity is to find a job and work their way up. Initially, they don’t have an understanding that education is the route to employment, Hamby said.

Hamby began talking to teachers, students and parents and developed a workshop for parents. She wrote the curriculum herself last summer. Called Families Reunite, it’s a 6-hour program offered in both English and Spanish.

A big focus is to help parents have difficult conversations with their kids.

She said parents often told her they had not expected a long separation from their children when they came to the United States — perhaps only a year.  They thought they could get a job and send money home for school and clothes and other needs, she said. But making money ends up taking far longer than that, and reuniting with children is difficult, she said.

When the kids arrive, the family often does not talk about the long separation, Hamby said. Her program encourages parents to explain the reasons they left home — and left the child — and acknowledge the children’s feelings. She encourages them to give something of an apology.

It also helps the parents understand what the child is going through, she said.

At the outset, the parents were reluctant to talk to her, she said. But when the parent program was put together, the parent who came — “we couldn’t get them to be quiet,” she said.

Hamby also works to raise awareness among school staff about issues of immigrant family reunification, and her office offers a parenting skills program that includes a support group for both parents and kids.

It can be important for the kids to simply have a safe place to be after school, Hamby said. Older kids may go to jobs after school and some kids must go home to babysit. Others really benefit from having a safe place to go.

The Fairfax district offers after-school programs in all elementary and middle schools, said Mark Emery, director of after-school programs. In middle schools, the program is free. The elementary programs — run by Fairfax County or by the Parent Teacher Association — have a sliding scale.

To meet the needs of newly arrived kids, “we have to expand into more conversational type programs” in after-school hour, he said

It helps to involve a lot of the children in sports to build their conversation skills and relationships, he said.

The goal is to create ways children “can interact with each other more frequently outside an academic environment to help them become more a part of the school culture,” he said.

What the law says

In May the U.S. Department of Education released a statement guiding schools in their approach to undocumented kids. The law is clear: Schools cannot inquire about the citizenship or residency status of children. Their job is to serve everyone.

The Supreme Court ruled in the decision Plyler v. Doe that “a state may not deny access to a basic public education to any child residing in the state, whether present in the United States legally or otherwise.” The denial of education would impose a lifetime of hardship, the court said.

It also pointed to the Brown v. Board of Education decision, which states “it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he [or she] is denied the opportunity of an education.”

The surge of kids from Central America are being placed by the Office of Refugee Resettlement with parents, relatives or other sponsors while awaiting a court hearing on their status. From Jan 1 to July 31, 37,477 had been placed, with the largest numbers going to Texas, New York and California.

Other states receiving large numbers are Florida, Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina and Georgia.

However, the numbers of kids apprehended at the Southwest border has dropped nearly 50 percent from June to July.  In June, 10,628 were apprehended. In July, 5,508 were apprehended, said Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson in an Aug. 7 statement.