A refugee crisis in our schools

PSRP Reporter Winter 2014 refugee crisis imageBy the end of 2014, more than 90,000 children are expected to have crossed into the United States at the Southern border without a parent or guardian. These unaccompanied minors are undocumented, but because of court backups, they must wait months and sometimes years for their cases to be resolved.

In the meantime, many of them attend our schools.

These children speak English as a second language, or not at all. They may have had some schooling in their home country—or not. Some have experienced trauma or violence. Most are living in poverty. Many have been separated from their immediate family. For some, school is the most stable place in their lives—but it is also one of the most challenging.

The path of the unaccompanied minor begins for the most part in Central American countries—El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras—that are overrun with organized crime, violence, human trafficking and persecution, and where homicide rates are the highest in the world. They come to escape violence (often gang-related), to join family members already living in the United States or to find work to support their families.

Once the children arrive, they are taken to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services shelter until they can be released to a family member, relative or friend. Sometimes their already difficult situation is complicated by overcrowded and unsanitary conditions at the shelter, and allegations of abuse while in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The AFT has strongly condemned such abuse, and called for adequate protections and legal services, culturally sensitive mental and physical health assessments, and greater access to human rights, civic, labor and faith groups while these children are in the system.

After being released from the shelters, the children have the right to attend public school—and that is where our members first meet them. They are often still vulnerable and usually need services beyond the classroom—anything from counseling to language assistance, help from the food bank or hints about American culture. For example, children who have never attended school in the United States may not clear their lunch trays in the cafeteria; rather than scold a child for leaving a tray on the table, a custodian or lunch monitor could gently explain the routine. “Everybody needs to be part of helping the child socialize and be comfortable in the school,” says Kristina Robertson, a national trainer and member of the AFT’s Educator Cadre advisory committee.

Robertson is featured in an informational video from Colorín Colorado, just one of the many resources on unaccompanied minors available on the AFT website. You’ll also find fact sheets, statistics and other resources that help explain the problem and provide tools you can use to welcome unaccompanied minors to your school. See go.aft.org/bordercrisis to learn more.

PSRP Reporter, Winter 2014 Download PDF (682.22 KB)
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