The Miami-Dade County school district faces a possible influx of students coming from Cuba and wants the federal government to provide additional money to help educate them.
Board members on Wednesday unanimously decided to ask for more funding for schools, where almost 4,000 Cuban students have enrolled in the last six months alone. No number was attached, but Superintendent Alberto Carvalho told the Miami Herald the cost to educate incoming students could be “upwards of $40 million.”
“This should not force a financial crunch on our school system,” he said. “This can be avoided if our federal government takes action.”
The Pew Research Center says there has been a 78 percent increase in the number of Cubans arriving in the country over the last year. Local municipalities and social service agencies are in preparation mode as an estimated 8,000 Cubans stuck in Costa Rica begin to move towards Mexico. The assumption is that many will end up in the U.S., where Cubans enjoy special immigration status that eases the path to legal residency and citizenship.
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“This is not going to be the Mariel boatlift,” Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado said in remarks to the school board. “But they’re coming, and they want to come to the City of Miami.”
The school district’s request is only the latest coming from South Florida. Three Miami Republicans have sent three separate requests to President Barack Obama to draft a plan to deal with the increasing number of refugees. The mayors of Miami, Hialeah and Doral have also said the federal government must step in with additional funding.
They want to avoid a repeat of last summer, when a sudden uptick in Cuban immigrants arriving in Miami stretched budgets and left some sleeping on the streets. Representatives for Church World Service and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops/Migration Refugee Services, which oversee services in Miami, said their organizations are actively planning with federal funding agencies.
“I just don’t feel that we need to panic at this time. We need to plan,” said Oscar Rivera, director of CWS Miami. “With the appropriate funding, it shouldn’t be a problem.”
Miami-Dade schools have enrolled 13,000 foreign-born students since July, putting the state’s largest school district on track to surpass last year’s numbers. Carvalho said the district could enroll more than 20,000 by the end of this school year, an increase of 5,000 from last year.
A majority are coming from Cuba, but the second-most are from Venezuela. According to school district figures, 2,300 students have arrived from the South American country since July.
More immigrants are expected soon. An estimated 8,000 refugees are stuck in Costa Rica as more Cubans flee the island through Central America. The migrants got stuck in Costa Rica after Nicaragua closed its borders to immigrants passing through. A plan was developed to transfer the migrants by plane to El Salvador, where they continue their trek toward Mexico, then the U.S. border. The flights to El Salvador began Tuesday night with 180 migrants aboard.
The result, local leaders say, will be a slow but steady flow of Cuban immigrants to South Florida.
“We are on the front line,” said school board member Raquel Regalado. “They just show up at school and we just deal with it.”
These students arrive needing additional services, such as language instruction and sometimes psychological help. The school district estimates it costs $2,700 more than what the state gives to educate immigrant children. Compounding the financial burden: The district will not receive funding for students who arrive after February, when the state takes its final attendance rolls.
“We know that children who are born outside of the country and are recently arrived here present additional challenges,” Carvalho said. “They are by and large poor. They don’t speak the language. They need to go into intensive programs that are costly.”
The school district says it is well prepared to educate these children. It has plenty of experience, dating back to the Mariel boatlift of the 1980s, the Haiti earthquake in 2010 and last year’s influx of unaccompanied children from Honduras and Guatemala who arrived in Miami-Dade.
In the previous school year, the federal government provided Miami-Dade schools with an additional $5.6 million in funding for immigrant children.