It was in early 2014 that federal officials and immigrant rights activists noticed a disturbing trend at the U.S. border with Mexico. Tens of thousands of children were crossing illegally without their parents.
The surge in unaccompanied minors shocked the nation as arrivals reached record levels. In all, at least 51,705 minors from Central America entered the United States illegally during fiscal year 2014 — a 148 percent increase over fiscal year 2013.
Most of the minors eventually were resettled throughout the country, and a significant number — more than 3,100 — wound up in South Florida.
Now that the exodus has eased, how are the children doing?
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Depending on who you talk to, some of the children are doing relatively well, others are dealing with various issues and still others are facing a crisis.
“I believe a large number, 50 percent, have been able to show up in immigration court and have been allowed to stay, avoiding deportation,” said Nora Sandigo, leader of American Fraternity. “They have not become a public charge or a burden on the community, though there may be some isolated cases of that.”
Sandigo said the main issues are a lack of attorneys to represent the children in court and not enough resources for public schools.
Francisco Portillo, president of Francisco Morazán Honduran Organization, echoed Sandigo’s assessment, adding that the main problems the children face are not enough lawyers to represent them, not enough resources for local public schools and increased pressure by immigration authorities on many of the children’s parents who themselves lack papers.
“Immigration authorities keep requiring me to report my whereabouts and that affects my ability to get a stable job,” said Cindy Figueroa Castro, a Honduran mother whose 4-year-old child was among the children who crossed the border last year.
Figueroa Castro, who previously lived in North Carolina, recently moved to Miami after her husband beat her in a bid to take the child from her, she said.
For José Cruz, a Cuban-American and former Jesuit priest who helped resettle young Cubans during the Pedro Pan exodus in the 1960s, the Central American minors are facing a crisis. Cruz and two other Cuban-Americans have formed the Peter Pan Border Operation — an organization designed to assist the Central American children in resettlement.
“Our organization responds to the fact that 90 percent of the boys and girls, teens of both sexes, since they range from 4 to 18 years of age, are living without any kind of supervision,” said Cruz, executive director of the group. “They also lack economic assistance and they have been turned over to people who are very poor, though morally very sound, because they do not have immigration status.”
Cruz said he is also concerned that some of the children may be living in overcrowded homes, while others may be forced to work to support their families. In addition, some of the children are facing problems in school because they don’t know English, and don’t eat well.
Dr. Jorge Herrera, president of the group, said he also is worried about the children’s overall health.
“These children don’t necessarily have access to health care systems,” said Herrera. “They don’t have health insurance coverage or medical supervision.”
Because of the problems or potential problems they perceive, Cruz and Herrera have asked the White House to grant the Peter Pan Border Organization authority and resources to supervise the status of Central American children nationwide.
Thus far, the White House has not responded , said Cruz. The White House official Cruz contacted also did not reply to an email message from el Nuevo Herald.
John Schuster, Miami-Dade County public schools administrative director, public relations, said the Central American children have been welcomed in the local schools “with open arms” and are adjusting as well as can be expected.
“For those who speculate about language difficulties keeping students from learning, I must remind them that Miami-Dade was the first school district in the country to offer bilingual instruction, at Coral Way K-8 Center, and that our school district was a pioneer in ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classes,” Schuster said in an e-mail message. “Language resources are available to all of our newly arrived students.”
Schuster also took issue with the notion the students are not eating well.
“For many of our economically challenged families, the meals students receive in school, including free breakfast for all students, may be the best meals they receive each day,” he said.
Overall, Schuster said, the children may be facing problems — but not in the schools.
“Of course, many of these children face challenges every day, but it is not from their enrollment in public schools,” he said. “It’s because they are thousands of miles away from their families and native lands, having been abruptly separated because of unspeakable violence in their home countries. Students do need extra attention, particularly in the area of counseling. Estimates for these additional services amount to about $1,900 per student, and that is why the school district has requested federal assistance in providing extra funding.”
Cheryl Little, executive director of Americans for Immigrant Justice, agreed with Schuster’s assessment.
“While so many of the children we see are thrilled to finally feel safe and have opportunities they never dared dream of, a number of them could use some help adjusting to life in America,” said Little. “Many children were forced to work at an early age in their home country in order to survive and didn’t have a chance to advance in school. Many also feel the need to work to help pay off the debt they owe coyotes [migrant smugglers] who facilitated the difficult journey.”
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