Miami schools chief: Why didn't feds tell us about immigrant children in Homestead?

Wasserman Schultz, Nelson denied entry into facility housing unaccompanied immigrant children

U.S. Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz and U.S. Senator Bill Nelson were denied entry into a federally run facility that is housing a large number of unaccompanied immigrant children on June 19, 2018.
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U.S. Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz and U.S. Senator Bill Nelson were denied entry into a federally run facility that is housing a large number of unaccompanied immigrant children on June 19, 2018.

Alberto Carvalho is miffed.

Breaking from its usual practice, the federal government sent more than 1,000 immigrant kids to a shelter in southern Miami-Dade County and didn't tell him.

As superintendent of Miami-Dade public schools, it's Carvalho's responsibility to provide an education to all school-age children within his jurisdiction. He cited that part of the Florida Constitution in a letter he sent to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen asking her what the district should do to educate those children.

"We should at least provide these children with the dignity of some connection with caring adults and access to educational services," he wrote, asking who his office should contact, "to ensure that these children, currently residing within Miami-Dade, receive the educational services to which they are constitutionally entitled and which we are morally obligated to provide."

Carvalho told the Miami Herald he learned of the Homestead facility reopening to shelter 1,200 immigrant children, including dozens who had been separated from their parents, through media reports.

He said when waves of undocumented youths arrived four years ago, including hundreds of unaccompanied children — primarily from Honduras — the federal government or local institutions communicated "directly or indirectly" how the district should provide them with educational services.

In his letter to Nielsen, Carvalho cited the Florida Constitution, which says that it is a "paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children residing within its borders."

Now, he'll have to send a second letter. News of President Trump's executive order ending the practice of separating families who crossed the U.S. border illegally broke during the Miami-Dade County School Board meeting Wednesday. Chair Perla Tabares Hantman read the news aloud and was met with a round of applause from board members and people in the audience.

Still, the board unanimously passed items condemning the separation of families who illegally crossed the border and requiring that the district be notified if centers with unaccompanied immigrant children open in the future. Both items were added on to the agenda following and in support of Carvalho's first letter.

Although he has not heard from any federal or state official regarding his letter sent Tuesday, Carvalho said he would write a second letter to Nielsen asking for information on the children in the facility. He said the district will need to know who these children are, if they came alone or were separated from their parents and how old they are, "so we may be in a position to better prepare to the education services they’re legally entitled to," he said.

Carvalho said the district will work with its congressional delegation to secure financial support to educate these students, which could cost $2,000 per child. Carvalho will also seek assurance from the federal government to notify the district if other centers open or if a decision is made regarding the transfer of children.

"If additional centers are open or if there are plans to relocate unaccompanied minors to the South Florida community, there should be notification provided to us so we’re in a better position to plan and provide an education to these kids," he said.

That would fall in line with how past administrations have notified the district about unaccompanied immigrant youth.

"My question is, what is different with these kids who apparently have gone through the same harrowing experience, compounded by the terrifying experience of being forcibly separated from their parents?" Carvalho said. "I don’t know what’s happening in that site in Homestead. We were not notified in its reopening. I do not know what educational provisions are in place there."

Carvalho said the school district continues to staff Catholic Charities’ Msgr. Bryan Walsh Children’s Village, formerly known as Boys Town, a facility that houses 130 unaccompanied minors in Cutler Bay, with five teachers, and His House in Miami Gardens, which started accepting immigrant children four years ago, with seven teachers and counseling support staff to serve 150 students.

But Carvalho said he couldn't speak to tending to unaccompanied youth previously held at the Homestead facility under the Obama administration two years ago. He said his staff was notified by the government via email that educational services had been contracted out.

"That was a site that was never indicated to us as requiring educational services," he said. "To the extent that some young people were housed there at some point, we were not notified of that, nor were educational services provided through Miami-Dade schools."

Although the traditional school year ended June 7 for Miami-Dade's public school students, Carvalho pointed out that it appears some children arrived at the Homestead shelter before the end of the school year, which would violate their rights to an education. He added that students who are entitled to summer services include English language learners.

Eventually, these children will transition through the foster care system and into public schools, Carvalho said.

In 2014, the School Board sought additional federal funding after 300 mostly Honduran students arrived within three months. Carvalho said he would work with the local congressional delegation to seek that same support.

"We have the experience and most importantly the skill and will to do this," he said. "All we need is a degree of federal cooperation."

Carvalho, who came to the United States as an unaccompanied minor from Portugal, said the children in the Homestead shelter and in other facilities in the country are being used as pawns, referencing the uproar over separating families who illegally cross the U.S. border.

"The politics appear to be different now," Carvalho said, adding that there is a "lack of desire to use Miami-Dade County Public Schools to ensure that these kids are getting a free public education as that is their right in the state of Florida."

As district officials wait for guidance, Carvalho says he believes the damage to those children is done.

"While the policy was reversed, there is no way of reversing the trauma imposed on these fragile children," he said. "No one should think this is erasable."

Colleen Wright can be reached at 305-376-3003 or @Colleen_Wright.