A Year Later: The School System That Welcomed Unaccompanied Minors

Oct 20, 2015
Originally published on October 20, 2015 8:09 pm

It's been a year since thousands of unaccompanied minors surged into the U.S., overwhelming some school districts. These children, many of whom don't speak English and have lived through violence, trauma and abuse, pose a serious challenge to schools. Some districts weren't ready. Oakland, Calif., was.

It was spring of 2014, well before the headlines had begun, when teachers at Oakland Unified realized something was wrong. A lot of students were missing class regularly — and not just playing hooky.

Ariana Flores now supervises the unaccompanied minors in Oakland and says the district had an a-ha moment. "Once they looked into it a little bit more, they realized that [the students] had immigration court dates," she explains. "They started talking to students and realizing they were unaccompanied minors."

Flores says the district was quickly overwhelmed with parentless, undocumented students. "They had nowhere to send new enrollees, and they were still coming."

One of those kids is Victor Ramirez Pablo. During lunch at Oakland International High, he sits under a tree, chatting with several friends. They speak in Mam, a Mayan language from their native Guatemala.

Victor has an awkward haircut, a big, toothy grin and a ring of dewy sweat around his boyish face. He seems like an average 18-year-old until he tells the story of how he made it to the U.S.

"In Guatemala, my parents were homeless. They had nothing," he explains.

When he was 5, Victor's parents found work in a nearby village and left him with neighbors. They said they'd come back in a few weeks.

"Months and years went by, and my parents never came back," he says.

Victor's neighbors took him in, but they couldn't protect him from the violence that plagues Guatemala. He remembers once being beaten by police until he lost consciousness.

At 12, Victor ran away, crossing the scalding Sonoran desert by himself and getting lost for weeks at a time. He's lucky to have made it to the U.S. alive. Once here, Victor turned himself over to immigration authorities. He now lives in foster care and attends high school.

At Oakland Unified, hundreds of unaccompanied minors with stories like Victor's — at least 400 — walk the halls. One Salvadoran boy was beaten and left for dead after he refused to join a gang. Another boy from Guatemala says he fled to the U.S. after his father tried to kill him.

The challenge for Flores and Oakland Unified was figuring out how to help these kids not only academically but also emotionally and legally.

"The first priority," she says, "is actually getting them a lawyer." Oakland was able to spring into action quickly, Flores says, because the district already had programs in place for homeless youth, kids in foster care and refugees.

Last year, the city provided more than $500,000 in legal service grants, while many Bay Area lawyers are also working student cases pro bono. Flores says every unaccompanied student in her district is now being represented, and, so far, all of them have been allowed to stay in Oakland.

But handling these legal needs is a relatively straightforward task compared with addressing the trauma many of these kids have suffered.

"We've got a lot of kids who will just up and leave in the middle of class," Flores says. "And you don't really know what it was that triggered them. Maybe it was a book falling that sounded like a gunshot. And they just leave. And so they're in flight mode."

Many of these unaccompanied students suffer mental health issues, ranging from anxiety to PTSD. And it's up to Flores, after an initial visit with each student, to hear each one's story and get each the help he or she needs.

"Essentially the boys were being recruited by the gangs, and the girls were seen as perks," Flores says. "Almost every girl has been sexually assaulted in some way, by someone, at least once."

Alameda County has pledged to spend $2.5 million on mental health services over the next three years. As a result, Flores says, Oakland schools don't have a money problem. The problem, she says, is that they "don't have enough Spanish-speaking, bicultural clinicians at each school."

Making matters even more difficult, these students often need to work to support themselves. Many owe thousands of dollars to the smugglers who brought them to the U.S. or send money home to support family members. Getting these kids to stay in school, instead of going to work, is a real challenge.

One teacher points out that for students like Victor who once had to learn Spanish as a second language, learning English is a lot easier. Victor has another advantage over many of his fellow unaccompanied minors: Because he crossed the border alone, he doesn't owe a smuggler. And he has no family back home to support. So for now, he's in school and says he'd like to become a police officer — or a social worker so he can help children.

One thing is for sure: These unaccompanied students and the challenges they present aren't going away. And Flores expects more to arrive this year. She says she sometimes feels overwhelmed by the burden of their stories.

"Some days, I just go home, and I need it to be quiet. But, when I think about how strong these kids are ... that gives me reason to say, 'OK, I can deal with this. I can deal with listening to these stories, and I try to lift them up.' "

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This time last year, the U.S. faced a migration crisis fueled by an increase in the number of unaccompanied children crossing the southern border. Thousands of those cases are still in court, so that means thousands of kids started a new school year in local districts struggling to support them.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Many of those kids don't speak English and have experienced violence and abuse. One district that has tried hard to meet the needs of these students is Oakland Unified in California. NPR's Jasmine Garsd went there and sent this report.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: It was spring of 2014, way before all the alarmed news headlines came out, when teachers at Oakland Unified School District realized something was wrong. A lot of students were missing class on a regular basis, and it wasn't just a case of playing hooky. These kids kept having to go to court.

ARIANA FLORES: And once they looked into it a little bit more, they realized that they were immigration court dates and started talking to students and realized that they were unaccompanied minors.

GARSD: That's Ariana Flores. She supervises all the unaccompanied minors in Oakland. And she says when she arrived on the scene, the schools were overflowing with these kids.

FLORES: They had nowhere to send new enrollees, and they were still coming.

VICTOR RAMIREZ PABLO: (Speaking Mam).

GARSD: One of those kids was Victor Ramirez Pablo. It's lunchtime at Oakland International high, and if you walk around the yard, you're likely to hear at least half a dozen different languages.

GARSD: Under a tree, Victor and his friends are shooting the breeze in Mam, a Mayan language from their native Guatemala.

PABLO: (Speaking Mam).

GARSD: Victor has this awkward haircut that's moist with dewy sweat at the edge of his round, boyish face and a big toothy grin. He's your run-of-the-mill 18-year-old until he tells you the story of how he ended up here.

PABLO: (Through interpreter) In Guatemala, my parents were homeless. They had nothing.

GARSD: When he was 5, Victor's parents found work in a nearby village and left him with neighbors. They sad they'd come back in a few weeks.

PABLO: (Through interpreter) Months and years went by, and my parents never came back.

GARSD: His neighbors took him in, but they couldn't protect him from the violence that plagues Guatemala. Victor says on one occasion, he was beaten by police until he was unconscious. He became desperate, and he ran away. He was 12. Victor crossed the scalding desert by himself, and he got lost for a month.

PABLO: (Through interpreter) I was very hungry. I ate nothing for a week, and then I found some cactus. It had some water inside, so I ate it, and it made me achy.

GARSD: Victor's lucky to have made it to the U.S. alive. He turned himself over to immigration authorities, and he's now living in foster care and attending high school.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: At Oakland Unified, there are hundreds of Victors - about 400. There's the Guatamalen boy who won't make eye contact with me. I'm later told his father tried to kill him. There's a Salvadoran boy who was left for dead after being beaten for refusing to join a gang. But what do you do with hundreds of children like Victor? Where do you even begin to unravel their problems? That's the overwhelming question Flores has to answer on a daily basis.

FLORES: The first priority is actually getting them a lawyer.

GARSD: Flores explains that one of the reasons Oakland was able to spring into action pretty quickly that they already had programs in place for homeless youth, kids in foster care and refugees. Last year, the city of Oakland gave over $500,000 to provide legal services, and the Bay Area currently has many pro bono lawyers working the cases. Flores says every unaccompanied kid in the school district is being represented. Insofar, all of them have gotten to stay. But that's just the beginning.

FLORES: We've got a lot of kids who will just up and leave in the middle of class, and you don't really know what it was that triggered them. Maybe it was a book falling that sounded like a gunshot. And they just leave. And so they're in flight mode.

GARSD: For most of these kids, from anxiety to PTSD, mental health is a major issue.

FLORES: Essentially, it's, like, the boys were being recruited into gangs, and the girls were sort of seen as a perk of the gang. Almost every girl has been sexually assaulted in some way by someone at least once.

GARSD: Alameda County has given $2.5 million to mental health services for the next three years. After an initial intake, Flores places the students with the service they need. We asked Flores if she thinks the system Oakland has set up is working. She says they don't have a money problem, but...

FLORES: The problem is that we don't have enough Spanish-speaking bicultural clinicians at each school.

GARSD: What color is this?

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #1: Yellow.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: Yellow.

GARSD: Yellow - right? - so now you need to look for the word yellow.

After the ordeal of lawyers and mental health specialists, it seems like learning English would be the easiest part of it all. It's not. Getting these kids to stay in school instead of go to work is actually one of the hardest parts. Many of the kids owe thousands of dollars to smugglers who brought them into the U.S. and are also supporting a family back home.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #2: (Through interpreter) I want to study more. I want a career. I'd like to be a policeman or a social worker and take care of kids.

GARSD: One teacher points out to me that for kids like Victor who once had to learn Spanish as a second language, learning English is a lot easier. And ironically, Victor is more likely to remain in school than a lot of his classmates. Because he crossed the border alone, he doesn't owe a smuggler, and because he doesn't have a family back home, he doesn't have to support them. So for now, he's still in school.

One thing is for sure. This issue isn't going away, and Ariana is expecting more students to trickle in as the year goes on. She says some days, she feels the weight of carrying all of their stories on her shoulders.

FLORES: Some days, I just go home, and I just need it to be quiet. But when I think about how strong these kids are, that gives me reason to say, OK, I can deal with this. I can deal with listening to these stories and trying to lift them up.

GARSD: Flores says she loves her job. Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, Oakland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.