Immigrant Minors From Central America Bring Hope, Past Trauma to U.S. Schools


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Brandon, 18 and a recent immigrant from Guatemala, jumped eagerly into a recent conversation exercise in his English language class. He was supposed to ask a classmate, “What color are your eyes?”

With liquid brown eyes of his own, and carefully cultivated biceps, the Oakland International High School student had no intention of wasting this question on any of his male classmates.

Instead, Brandon zeroed in on a girl from El Salvador, who didn’t seem at all upset by his choice. Leaning forward with mock earnestness, Brandon asked the assigned question in heavily accented English.

“My eyes are color brown,” the girl answered, grinning as Brandon widened his own eyes to stare right into hers in an it-would-be-awkward-but-we’re-teenagers kind of way. Much giggling ensued.

Brandon, who did not want to give his last name because of a pending deportation hearing, is one of 66,127 young people traveling alone who were caught on their way across the U.S.-Mexican border between Oct. 1, 2013 and Aug. 31, 2014.

In 2011, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol began to see a sharp rise in the number of unaccompanied children coming from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. So far in fiscal year 2014, the number of unaccompanied minors caught on the southern border is more than triple the number apprehended in 2010.

Like most new arrivals, Brandon is a here for a complex web of reasons: to flee wanton violence, to escape grinding poverty, and to reunite with family living in the U.S.

Whatever their reasons for coming, the vast majority of the newly arrived children — both the ones the government caught on the way here and the unknown number who made it across without getting picked up by Border Patrol — are now attending the one American institution legally bound to serve them: public schools.

Arriving After Trauma

A majority, 58 percent, of the children arriving here have left war-like conditions that could qualify them for international protection as refugees, according to a recent report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, commonly known as UNHCR. The international agency recommends a thorough screening of each arriving minor to determine if he or she qualifies for that protection. Buffeted by shouting matches in Washington, D.C. and several state capitals, that process is underway.

In the meantime, schools across the country are enrolling large numbers of newly arrived Central American students and trying to figure out the best way to serve them.

Many new arrivals have had little formal schooling. A majority stopped attending school after sixth grade, according to UNHCR. In addition to learning English and the subject matter of their various classes, they also must learn to raise their hands to answer questions, change classes when a bell rings and never wander the halls without a bathroom pass. And there are still those normal teenage concerns: remembering one’s locker combination and flirting, now in a new language.


A full introduction to all of the requirements of attending school, along with continued support and understanding as students figure things out, will help with this massive shift, said Mary Beth Klotz, director of education practice at the National Association of School Psychologists. So will trauma-informed instruction that takes the new students’ background into account.

Even those who are here more for economic opportunities than out of fear have undertaken a long journey without parents before arriving in a foreign land. And teachers should keep in mind that students who have been here for quite a while still may not be fully settled in, Klotz said.

“There may be a honeymoon period where (students) are absorbing everything new and it may take a while to absorb it before behaviors come out that are concerning,” like tearing up a frustrating assignment or crying at the slightest provocation, Klotz said.

Both reactions are common for people who have survived trauma, Klotz said.

Klotz said she would urge teachers and other school staff to avoid rushing to judgment if a student has emotional problems after only a few weeks in a new country. “It’s really going to take time,” she said.

‘Cobbling Together Resources’

California received 4,680 children from detention centers between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31, 2014 according to the federal Office for Refugee Resettlement. (That gave California the third-largest number of children from detention centers, following New York, with 4,799 children, and Texas, with 6,217.) It’s impossible to calculate how many others have arrived without notifying officials.

In Oakland, where Brandon attends high school, the school district enrolled students from 346 Central American families during the last school year, according to Nate Dunstan, who works with the refugee and asylum program at the district’s Transitional Students and Families Unit. Just over 200 of those new students have a deportation hearing scheduled. The others are either here legally or were simply never caught. Dunstan suspects that many fall into the latter category.

“It is, strictly speaking, illegal to flat out ask for someone’s immigration status” when they enroll in public school, Dunstan said. “But there are other ways to ask. And it’s not about their status; it’s about (getting them) the services they need.”

For example, while some students are living with parents, others are renting rooms at the homes of family friends or distant relatives. Understanding a student’s living situation can help teachers and other school staff better address concerns about homework completion or proper nutrition.

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_original","fid":"594382","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image media-image-left","height":"700","style":"width: 350px; height: 700px; float: left;","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"350"}}]]Oakland is better positioned to receive this new wave of immigrants than many cities. As a regular destination for refugees from around the world, Oakland has already employed people like Dunstan who are prepared to help such students. Several district high schools offer newcomer programs, including Oakland International High School, which specializes in helping recent immigrants make the transition to American schools.

Oakland also boasts federal funding from the Office of Refugee Resettlement — funding Klotz encourages other districts to apply for—that pays for Lauren Markham, a campus-based coordinator at Oakland International, to focus on the district’s immigrant population.

“We’re expecting these kids to go to school, not mess up, not repeat the violence they’ve been exposed to, show up to court, retain a lawyer,” said Markham. “It’s a lot.”

In addition to helping individual students navigate the byzantine legal system, Markham works to weave together services available in the surrounding community: lawyers willing to work pro bono on immigration cases, mental health care for uninsured students, English tutors, after-school programs, and more.

“My goal is to make it so teachers can teach,” said Markham.

One part of making teaching possible is enrolling students with minimal English and gaps in their schooling in the right grades. At Oakland International, students are enrolled in a grade based on their skill level, not their age. Eighteen-year-old Brandon, for example, is technically in an English class designed for 9th and 10th grade students. Students like Brandon can stay in the public school system until the age of 21 in California.

Available student services vary widely across the country, but all districts should focus on finding possible outside partners that could help new students, Klotz said. In addition to offering services for learning English, Klotz said there are three key goals schools can adopt: providing teachers with training to teach traumatized children, providing mental health care services, and working closely with trusted interpreters during conversations with families.

Putting all those services in place will take time and many cash-strapped districts will struggle to provide them. Oakland International is better prepared than most to work with recent immigrants, but the sheer number of new students here is overwhelming the school’s resources, Markham said.

“For example, positive trauma interventions are very useful,” Markham said, “but they’re super expensive and we don’t have that kind of money. We’re cobbling together resources.”

Finding a Footing in the U.S.

Anna Kaplan, an English teacher at Oakland International, said that the new students’ attitudes about school generally fall into two camps: “students who are glad to be in school because it gives them a chance to learn and start over, and students who are resentful of being in school because they came here to work and feel like they are being forced into scholarship instead.”

Attending school is mandatory until the age of 16 in most U.S. states, which is not the rule in the countries these unaccompanied minors are arriving from. Many have already spent years working. However, attending school is seen as a way to score points with the judge during a deportation hearing, Markham said, which encourages older students to attend classes even if they aren’t interested. So while some new arrivals are thrilled to be able to go to school, others are resentful.

Brandon, she said, is in the first camp. His English skills are still developing, but he’s able to read an English text with support. Plus, he’s a “self-starter,” Kaplan said, so he stands to learn a lot in a short period of time.

In this, and many other ways, Brandon is one of the lucky ones. He lives with his mother. She owns a small shop in East Oakland where she sells goods from Guatemala — from hand-woven scarves to flag key chains to Spanish-language bibles. She’s literate in Spanish and has been tutoring Brandon’s cousin, Wendy, 17, who traveled here with him. And though Brandon faced violence in the streets at home, his main reason for leaving was to find a better economic future.

“Here you can sustain yourself and also continue your education,” Brandon said in Spanish through an interpreter. “I’d like to go to college and become a mechanic.”


Kaplan thinks that’s a realistic goal for him.

Other students have faced starker trauma on their journey here. Several girls told staff at Oakland International that they’d been raped, either at home or on their way north. Many students have lost family members to the violence in their hometowns or even seen them murdered.

One girl told a teacher here that she left her home to live with relatives in Oakland at her mother’s insistence after her brother was killed. She was 14 when she left. She just turned 16 and still misses her mother.

Another boy, 15, told a teacher he left Honduras after having been arrested and put in jail several times. He told police that he wasn’t in a gang. They didn’t believe him and said that if he landed in jail again, it would be for a long time. His mother, who already lived in the U.S., told him to come north.

Rafael, 15, fled El Salvador several months ago. Rafael, who didn’t want to give his last name for fear of reprisals, said the gangs had tried to recruit him.

“Little by little the maras came in” to our town, Rafael said in Spanish through an interpreter. “They wanted me to work for them. I’m Christian, so my religion says, ‘no.’”

El Salvadorian refugees from that country’s civil war started the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, in Los Angeles in the early 1990s, reports Sarah Garland, now executive editor at The Hechinger Report, in her book Gangs in Garden City. Many of the original Mara Salvatrucha, which now claims tens of thousands of members, were young men with military training from one side or the other during the war, Garland writes. The gang spread quickly in the U.S. and, as members began to be deported back to El Salvador, it spread there too.

A decade and a half later, boys who are the right age to be the sons of the first exiles are the ones once again fleeing an unstable country torn by violence.

Rafael said he held out against the gang’s recruitment attempts until gang members sexually assaulted his sister. Fearing that his grandmother, with whom they lived, couldn’t protect them, the siblings decided to go to America to find their parents. Rafael made it here last month. His sister, who was already 18, was sent back from the U.S. border.

‘What Everyone Hopes For’

Telling the story now, from the safety of a counselor’s office at his new high school, Brandon breezes through large swaths of his 3,000-mile, months-long trip north that he took with his cousin Wendy. But he slows down when he talks about finally arriving in the U.S.

“At the border, we went in a dinghy over the (Rio Grande) river,” Brandon said in Spanish. “Then we walked for three hours. We stayed in a house in Texas and the Border Patrol got us there. They took us to a facility with other youth. We stayed there for two weeks. Twice a day, they gave us a frozen sandwich. Even the ham was frozen.”

After being detained for several weeks, Brandon and his cousin were released to his mother’s custody.

Brandon and Wendy are unsure about the future. They each have deportation hearings pending, though they do not have dates set for those hearings yet. Still, in the way of teenagers, they are hopeful.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Brandon said, “but I hope for what everyone hopes for: to remain here.”

Interpreting and reporting for this story were contributed by Jasmín López.

This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about California education.

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