Lynn, Mass. — With fewer than ten days to go before the beginning of the 2014–15 school year, the federal government placed 45 illegal-immigrant children in the Norwalk, Conn., school system. The children illegally crossed the border this summer, along with tens of thousands of other illegal immigrants coming from Central America. “Not only were they children who were from outside the country and going to be in a very strange environment, with no English-language skills, but it also turned out that at least 28 of them had very poor Spanish skills and hadn’t been in school for years,” says Michael Lyons, chairperson of Norwalk’s board of education.
The city of Norwalk spent approximately $300,000 hiring teachers and aides and reorganizing classrooms to accommodate the new students spread across 19 schools, Lyons says. Norwalk managed to reallocate funds to cover the needs of the foreign students, about 75 in all, who arrived in the last two years. But if the surprise arrival of such students continues, Lyons says, the district of approximately 11,000 students will struggle. “If you want to open the borders and let people in so you can help them, then part of that plan, if it’s a plan, should be figuring out how to pay for it, not simply leaving that little problem to somebody else, but that’s what President Obama did here,” Lyons says. “This was a conscious decision by officials of the federal government to suddenly open the border wide for these children and then disperse them around the country in bulk and with practically no notice to the local municipalities.”
It is a common belief that immigration exclusively affects the southwestern United States, but the border crisis last summer hit New England hard. The federal government took custody of many thousands of unaccompanied alien children who crossed the border this summer, keeping information about their whereabouts shrouded in secrecy. As the crisis at the border gained national attention, the government quietly moved Central American illegal-immigrant children into detention centers across the country. The feds have since released the children to sponsors — parents, family friends, or other guardians — living in all 50 states, and local taxpayers are footing the bill by providing for the care and education of the children.
“In our area . . . we’ve basically, like so many other states, now become a border state,” says Sheriff Thomas Hodgson of Bristol County, in southeastern Massachusetts. Hodgson believes that rising crime, especially theft, in parts of his county is attributable to illegal immigrants’ moving into the community.
Farther north, in the seaside town of Lynn, about eleven miles north of Boston, the influx of Central American immigrants is most notable, as with many other towns, in the schools. At Lynn’s high schools, admission of all foreign students — including illegal immigrants, refugees, and foreign nationals — has increased by more than 500 students since the 2010–11 school year. In the last school year, close to 250 students arrived from Guatemala, including 126 enrolled in the ninth grade. “Some of them have had gray hair, and they’re telling you that they’re 17 years old and they have no documentation,” Jamie Cerulli, chief of staff to Lynn’s mayor, told National Review Online in July. “If my children went to the public schools, I’d be very uncomfortable with all of these unaccompanied minors [who] are placed in the ninth grade.”
One of the “children” who appeared to be older than suggested by her Health and Human Services Department documentation lives within a few hundred feet of the Lynn police station, but local law enforcement has no jurisdiction over immigration law. Lynn police chief Kevin Coppinger says he knows that some adult illegal immigrants have posed as children to enter local high schools. He considers such fraud a public-safety concern, but it’s up to the federal government to respond, and it has so far remained inert on this matter.
HHS has released data showing how many unaccompanied alien children the government has sent to each state, but little is known about the children’s living conditions or exact whereabouts. Isai (his full name has been withheld) was a “minor” released to a family friend in Lynn less than one month before his 18th birthday, according to his “Verification of Release Form” from the Health and Human Services Department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement. When National Review visited the address listed for Isai, no one answered the door, but the names listed on the three-story home’s mailboxes suggested that Isai was one of at least 20 people living there.
The influx of Central Americans is overwhelming the school system and straining the city’s resources. “We’re squeezed as far as space goes and financially,” says Donna Coppola, a Lynn school-committee member. “I don’t know what we’re going to do.” The mayor’s office has asked the city’s departments to scale back their operations so they can redirect the funds toward the influx of unaccompanied alien children. Coppinger says the police department alone took a $1 million budget cut from its budget of more than $19 million for fiscal year 2015.
In Milford, Mass., 30 children joined the town’s only high school after its July 1 registration deadline. They were placed in classes with English-speaking students even though they couldn’t speak the language, says Scott Harrison, chairperson of Milford’s school committee. According to a “Dear Colleague” letter the Departments of Justice and Education sent to all public-school districts on May 8, 2014, federal civil-rights laws require that students not be barred from enrolling in public elementary or secondary schools because of their immigration or citizenship status or that of their parents or guardians. Schools may not inquire into the immigration or citizenship status of the children, but they may ensure that the students live in their district.
Milford High School graduates approximately 300 students every year, but the foreign students will struggle to be among them. Harrison notes that the children who arrived in his town are non-traditional students, meaning they have not attended school continuously throughout their childhood, if they have attended at all, and that the town will need to hire additional teachers to support them. “Now you’ve got these students, they’re joining in tenth grade, they don’t speak the language, they don’t have parents, they’re staying in an unfamiliar area, an unfamiliar state, unfamiliar all the way around,” he says. “These students are really kind of set up to fail.” And the students’ performance is now tied to the teachers’ evaluations, he adds, so teachers with these kids in their classrooms might be at risk of losing their job.
Furthermore, the blue-collar town of Milford has had to pay for the incoming students’ vaccinations and physicals, Harrison says, and has not received assistance from the state or federal government. The town is in a good financial situation, but “we’re going to have to do one of two things,” he says. “Either we’re going to have to cut programs, or we’re going to have to raise taxes.”
According to Harrison, Milford wants to attract “working class” people to the town — policemen, firefighters, and teachers — but the financial cost of the incoming illegal-immigrant children could play a role in pushing those people away. “They’ve got to find a way to pay for this stuff,” Harrison says of the federal government. “They can’t keep relying on homeowners and municipal taxpayers to bear the brunt . . . of these responsibilities.”
The Indian River school district in southern Delaware received no warning from the federal government when 70 foreign students arrived earlier this year, says Donald Hattier, who sits on the Indian River school board. The 70 kids attend class in a high school of approximately 1,200 students, where the average class size is about 22 students. The foreign students have special needs and will require more instruction than do typical students, and their teachers must have additional certification. The students’ arrival could cost the school system nearly $1 million, Hattier estimates. Since neither the state nor the federal government has provided any money, he predicts that taxes will have to be raised in his community, too.
The foreign students often lack the documentation and preparation required of typical students in the Indian River school district. “If we were American kids playing by the rules and we tried to get into school with the paperwork that they come in with, they’d reject every one of them,” Hattier says. “But because they’re immigrants . . . we have to take their word for it. It’s, like, ‘Are you serious?’”
These students’ test scores on statewide exams will reflect poorly on the schools. “You’re trying to take a child who has a limited education and ask him to come up to the standards of a normal American tenth- and eleventh-grader, and we have one year to do it,” Hattier says. “So if one year worked and it was possible, why don’t we do it with our American kids, too?”
It will cost approximately $761 million at schools throughout the country to educate unaccompanied alien children who have been released by the federal government between January 1 and July 31 of this year, according to the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates more-stringent border security and lower levels of legal immigration. But the actual cost of caring for the children will be much higher. Many of the children in these towns qualify for federal programs that provide free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch, meaning that the federal government is essentially feeding them. And school administrators say it is unlikely that many illegal-immigrant students will graduate.
President Obama’s immigration policies have created an unfunded mandate requiring towns across America to pick up the tab of illegal-immigrant children. These children have settled in communities throughout the country after undergoing poor medical screening, and some have a limited ability to communicate. The president’s de facto amnesty may continue to draw more illegal immigrants to the United States, and many towns will struggle to stay afloat as a result.
In July, Delaware governor Jack Markell, a Democrat, told a local radio station he would push the federal government to reimburse the costs of educating illegal-immigrant children, saying he had received no warning of their arrival in his state. He added that he had no way of knowing whether the children were living in a safe environment, because the government would not say where the kids were headed or whom they were staying with.
The blame for this new burden on his community, Hattier says, rests with the federal government, not local officials. “I’m a rabid libertarian constitutionalist, and I love blaming everything including bad breath on the Democrats, but you can’t in this case,” he says. “This has nothing to do with them; in fairness, this has to do with what the federal government is making them do.”
The Obama administration’s immigration policies indicate its willingness to open the borders to illegal-immigrant children despite the cost. Local officials say they have no reason to believe the children will ever be removed from the country; they consider the illegal immigrants to be permanent residents in their communities. The large inflow of Central American children has slowed since last summer, but the harmful consequences remain.