A steadily rising tide of unaccompanied immigrant children, mostly from Mexico and Central America, has been flooding America’s southern borders over the past three years. Those minors, many of whom have illegally crossed in search of a better life, have been sent by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials to live with family members on Long Island, and elsewhere across the country, while awaiting a court date and, ultimately, learning their fate.
Out of the 43,419 unaccompanied minors under the age of 18 who were received by border patrol agents between January 1 and August 31 of this year, more than 2,500 were placed in sponsor homes in Suffolk and Nassau counties by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement. Although the South Fork as a whole hasn’t seen as many child refugees—as they are often called—as its neighbors to the west, Hampton Bays has seen several enter the community in recent years, and experts say the hamlet is due to receive more in the near future.
Last school year, the Hampton Bays School District had seven students between its three schools who were placed into homes in the district, and Schools Superintendent Lars Clemensen said that number had risen by two or three as of the beginning of this school year. Sister Mary Beth Moore, who runs Centro Corazón de Maria, a nonprofit organization that operates out of St. Rosalie’s Roman Catholic Church in Hampton Bays to help Hispanic immigrants, said there could be as many as a dozen more refugee children arriving in the coming weeks.
Most of these unaccompanied minors who come to the United States are fleeing homelands such as Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador, that have high rates of gang- and drug-related violence, and are seeking asylum, according to Sister Moore.
Parents send their children, sometimes with the assistance of a paid guide, known as a “coyote,” and sometimes on their own, on the treacherous trek through the desert along the U.S.-Mexican border so they can make their case for refugee status.
“The journey is very perilous,” Sister Moore said. “People wouldn’t do it unless they had no other choice.”
When the children arrive in customs, oftentimes with identification documents, Sister Moore pointed out, they are processed for several days before being sent to live with a guardian—frequently a parent or family member—while they await a court hearing to make a case for asylum.
Sister Moore said she knows two refugee children from Guatemala who were placed with family members in Hampton Bays in December 2013 that, to date, have had their court appearances adjourned three times due to a backlog. Meanwhile, the number of immigrant children continues to rise, from roughly 15,000 in 2011 to 24,000 in 2012 to 40,000 in 2013, according to Sister Moore, and the federal government is heavily backlogged as additional children arrive in the country daily.
New York state has seen the second highest number of unaccompanied children this year, ahead of both California and Florida, and trailing behind only Texas, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Accepting some 1,300 refugee children thus far this year, Suffolk County has taken in the third-most child refugees of any county in the country behind only Los Angeles County in California at 2,313 and Harris County, Texas—which includes Houston and the surrounding areas—at 3,231.
Regardless of a student’s legal standing, as long as they reside in Hampton Bays, the school district must provide them with an education, according to Mr. Clemensen.
Between language barriers, poor educational backgrounds and the physical and emotional hardships of the journey from their home countries—not to mention the separation from their parents in some instances—many of these refugee students face a multitude of issues before arriving for their first day of school, the superintendent noted.
While many need to enroll in English as a Second Language (ESL) classes and remedial programs, the impact has been minimal on the district compared to elsewhere on Long Island, where some school districts have had refugees brought in by the dozens, Mr. Clemensen said. He also pointed out that because his district already educates a large number of children from immigrant families, it already has many of the necessary classes and programs in place.
“At some point, if nothing changed and more students kept coming in, we’d need to add another teacher or another class—at some point we would end up having to make changes,” he said. “But we are a multicultural school district anyway, so many of the services we have already available, meaning we haven’t incurred any additional expenses.”
Terry Brady-Mendez, director of the Long Island Regional Bilingual Education Resource Network, or RBE-RN, noted that two years ago Hampton Bays was designated as a district in need of intervention because of its lack of services for non-English-speaking students. RBE-RN, which is run through the Eastern Suffolk Board of Cooperative Educational Services and funded by state grants, provided technical assistance, consultation and professional development to the district to help establish programs and certify teachers for ESL, Ms. Brady-Mendez said.
The school district is no longer classified as in need and, today, is excelling in the field of educating immigrant and non-English-speaking students through programs such as the Newcomers Club, which began at the middle school and has spread to the elementary school to help acclimate students from other countries to life in Hampton Bays.
Mr. Clemensen said the Newcomers Club meets multiple times a week before school, and gives kids a chance to study together and learn how to navigate through their school day.
“It’s difficult enough if you struggle, and not all immigrants struggle, but it’s difficult in the confines of the short school days to assimilate to life in a new country and get an education,” Mr. Clemensen said, adding that some of the refugee students are involved in Newcomers Club.
School officials and politicians elsewhere on Long Island have called on the federal government to provide funding to schools that are negatively and disproportionately impacted on a budgetary level by absorbing large numbers of refugee children.
During a debate held at Hampton Bays High School on Monday night and featuring the two candidates running to represent eastern Long Island in the U.S. House of Representatives—longtime U.S. Representative Tim Bishop and his challenger in this fall’s midterm election, State Senator Lee Zeldin—both discussed the influx of refugee children on Long Island.
Mr. Bishop, a Democrat from Southampton, said there’s “no question” that the federal government should be financially assisting school districts that are adversely impacted by those refugee students placed in their community, though he noted that Hampton Bays has not been greatly impacted as it has cost the school just $14,000 to take on the roughly 10 students.
“They’ve been able to accommodate that by moving money around in their budget,” Mr. Bishop said. “Now, if the numbers continue to grow, they’re not going to be able to do that and clearly the federal government has to step in.”
Drawing raucous applause from the audience, Mr. Zeldin argued that the federal government should be more focused on preventing the issue in the first place.
“There are multiple solutions about how to humanely detain these unaccompanied immigrant children at the border,” he said, “to have increased technologies so we can reduce backlogs in judges’ courtrooms all across the country to make sure we are expeditiously reuniting these children with their families back home.”