It isn’t a new story — unaccompanied minors have been coming to the United States for dozens of years — but the numbers are increasing, and many of the children are coming to North Carolina.
Data released in August by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services shows that nearly 43,500 unaccompanied minors have been released to the care of a U.S. sponsor since the start of 2014, and 1,648 of those children are in North Carolina — making the state the eighth largest location of child refugees in the nation.
The number of unaccompanied minors in the United States has rapidly increased every year. The annual number has grown since 2011 from 6,560 children to an expected 60,000 unaccompanied minors by the end of the 2014 fiscal year, according to the DHHS 2015 budget proposal.
And North Carolina’s school systems have to find new ways to accommodate them.
The Surry County Board of Commissioners drafted a resolution stating that undocumented children would stretch the school district’s funding, security and public health and safety infrastructure. The board asked the federal government for the authority to deny the applications of unaccompanied minors awaiting their deportation hearing.
But a coalition of state civil rights groups filed a federal discrimination complaint on behalf of immigrant students denied enrollment in several state school districts earlier this year.
Matt Ellinwood, policy analyst at the N.C. Justice Center, said many unaccompanied children have experienced difficulties enrolling in public schools nationwide.
“They are just children who are here through no fault of their own, and they really need to have access to the education system and the benefits that come from it,” he said.
Ellinwood said undocumented minors might be discouraged from registering for school when they begin to fill out documents and find that they are asked for a social security number or a specific form of ID — but neither requirement is mandatory for registration by law.
William Sudderth, Durham Public Schools’ director of public information, said they do not ask for documentation or social security numbers.
“They are people with an equal right to an education from Durham Public Schools,” he said.
Sashi Rayasam, Durham Public Schools’ director of the English as a Second Language program, said they received a small amount of supplemental funding for programs to help immigrant children — many of whom have an interrupted education — succeed in school.
“Because this is a new dynamic that we’ve had — and it’s very recent, since January — we’re trying not to be in triage mode and trying to kind of look ahead in knowing what our needs are now and how they are about to grow,” she said.
Veronica Aguilar, co-chairwoman of the UNC Students United for Immigration Equality, said public education is necessary for undocumented minors to support themselves financially in the future.
“There’s already a limitation to higher education, and to completely block off the only type of education that they would be able to access — public education — it’s just cruel,” she said.
Gov. Pat McCrory held a press conference in August to address the issue and signed a letter in July with five other state governors, urging the president to return the influx of unaccompanied children to their home country.
“We are concerned that there will be significant numbers who will end up using the public schools, social services and health systems largely funded by the states,” the letter said.
“More importantly, we are concerned that the failure to return the unaccompanied children will send a message that will encourage a much larger movement toward our southern border.”
Unaccompanied minors face a complex legal process once they are detained and placed with a sponsor, who is often a relative and serves as the child’s legal advocate.
“Because they are minors of age, they don’t have the capacity to admit to the allegations against them, to admit that they are not admissible, that they’re removable,” said Mark Bowers, an immigration attorney from Legal Services of Southern Piedmont.
Each child is given the opportunity to appear in court and claim asylum or status as a special immigrant juvenile, said Raul Pinto, N.C. Justice Center attorney.
Because of the recent influx, the Department of Justice has issued a directive ensuring the cases go to court within 21 days.
“That is really limiting your options to look for competent legal representation, to the point sometimes where children just don’t look for representation, and often don’t show up to these hearings and receive deportation orders,” Pinto said.
Daniela Hernandez Blanco, UNC student and immigration rights activist, said the influx of undocumented children is a humanitarian crisis and it shouldn’t be as politicized as it has been.
“We’re people, we’re not just media headlines,” she said, referring to herself as an immigrant. “We’re just trying to make it to tomorrow without getting deported.”