2014-10-22 14:08:16 UTC
border, you are South."
NY Times, Oct. 22 2014
Requirements Keep Young Immigrants Out of Long Island Classrooms
By BENJAMIN MUELLER
WESTBURY, N.Y. ? Before dawn breaks and the morning light spills onto
his bedroom floor, Carlos Garcia Lobo bounces out of bed, his eyes
alight with anticipation, and asks his mother if he can go to school.
Each time, she replies to her 8-year-old son: Not yet.
Four months after fleeing Honduras with a 15-year-old cousin, Carlos has
reached what his family said seemed like an impassable frontier. Like
dozens of the roughly 2,500 unaccompanied immigrant children who have
been released to relatives or other sponsors on Long Island so far this
year, Carlos has been unable to register for school.
The impasse has baffled parents, who say their scant resources have
proved no match for school district bureaucracies. Required by law to
attend school, children are nevertheless stuck at home, despite
unrelenting efforts by their parents and others to prove that they are
eligible. Suffolk and Nassau Counties, on Long Island, rank third and
fifth, respectively, in the United States, after counties centered on
Houston and Los Angeles, in the number of unaccompanied minors they have
absorbed so far this year; Miami-Dade County is fourth.
Many of the children are barred because their families cannot gather the
documents that schools require to prove they are residents of the
district or have guardianship ? obstacles that contravene legal guidance
on enrollment procedures the State Education Department issued in
September. Concern over similar deterrents across the country led
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in May to chide districts for
?raising barriers for undocumented children,? in that way violating a
1982 Supreme Court decision that guarantees their right to an education.
Driven from Honduras by gangs that brandished machetes and robbed his
grandmother?s home, Carlos trekked to the border in June with his cousin
and a guide, bumping along on buses ?all day and night,? he recalled.
On July 10, Carlos joined his mother, Yeinni Lobo, who came to the
United States when he was 11 months old. Since he arrived, Ms. Lobo says
she has visited the local school office at least 10 times, toting
immunization records. She said she provided her address, and the name of
the fellow tenant who collects her rent, to show that she lived in the
district. But the school demanded a statement from the home?s absentee
So as Carlos tries to decode the schoolwork his older cousins bring
home, Ms. Lobo gets an education in red tape. She found her homeowner?s
Bronx address on property records at a courthouse. A letter she sent
pleading for help dropped back through her mail slot, marked ?Return to
Sender.? Carlos?s official manila file folder is affixed with a Post-it
reading, ?Waiting for owner?s affidavit.? Once, a school secretary
suggested that Ms. Lobo fix the problem by moving to a different home.
In the school parking lot, she says, she and other mothers cry over the
?They are not giving us a solution,? Ms. Lobo said. ?I?m worried because
he?s getting behind.?
New York City has recently built programs to guide undocumented children
through school and health forms and even finance legal representation.
But on Long Island, a small number of low-cost lawyers say they are
overwhelmed with hundreds of new cases.
Even children who enrolled in school say they have subsequently been
stymied. According to a school document obtained by the advocacy group
New York Communities for Change, 33 Hispanic students in Hempstead, many
of them recent immigrants, have been signing in for attendance a few
times each week, only to be told by administrators they should return
home because there are not enough classrooms to accommodate them. The
delay prompted the State Education Department last week to order an
investigation into the district?s procedures and affirm its September
legal guidance. School officials said the students would be allowed to
start classes at an alternate location this week.
On the margins of Long Island?s well-to-do suburbs, where Central
American families have long settled, churches have become sanctuaries
for the newly arrived.
Carmen Bustillo, who said she left Honduras with her children after a
gang repeatedly threatened to kidnap them, seeks advice at St. Brigid?s
Church in Westbury. Alongside her 12-year-old son, Gendries, and
11-year-old daughter, Linda, Ms. Bustillo waded across the Rio Grande in
June, carrying her 3-year-old son over her head. The water lapped at
Like many immigrants on Long Island, where affordable housing is scarce,
Ms. Bustillo rents rooms in a home that illegally lodges several
families. To protect himself from scrutiny, the landlord declined to
notarize district residency papers. Gendries and Linda were kept out of
Westbury schools for about three weeks before they were allowed to enroll.
?I don?t know who to trust,? Ms. Bustillo said.
Lease agreements or copies of bills are common prerequisites for school
enrollment, a practice that is allowed under legal guidance the federal
Education and Justice Departments issued in May. Activists say such
requirements, when applied to newly arrived children, can impede their
access to school and undermine federal law. New York State has asked
schools to consider classifying children in shared or temporary housing
as homeless, which under federal law allows them to attend school
without formal proof of residency.
The updated federal guidance, Mr. Holder said in May, ?emphasizes the
need for flexibility in accepting documents from parents to prove a
child?s age and to show that a child resides within a school?s
The superintendent of the Westbury schools, Mary A. Lagnado, said the
district accommodated new arrivals by making paperwork available in
Spanish and looking for ?whatever alternative we can? when certain
information is unobtainable. As a testament to their success, Dr.
Lagnado said, the district has already enrolled 121 more students this
year than last.
But especially in a town sensitive to its tax burden, she said, certain
residency requirements are rigid. Families like Ms. Lobo?s who are
subleasing rooms in a home must provide a notarized lease or owner?s
affidavit, the homeowner?s residential deed or mortgage statement, and
two home bills.
?We try to make sure that they are a bona fide resident of the school
district,? she said. ?Taxes are very high on Long Island. We have a
responsibility to our community and homeowners.?
The strain on already-packed classrooms builds because many immigrant
children do not speak English and have scant experience in school, Dr.
Lagnado said. Integrating them without extra funding makes the perpetual
academic competition with nearby districts even harder, she said.
?It?s a challenge when you?re surrounded by such wealthy districts,? Dr.
Public officials are working to replenish schools? reserves.
Representatives Steve Israel, a Democrat, and Peter T. King, a
Republican, both from Long Island, recently introduced legislation that
would give districts emergency financing for new enrollees, an effort
that Mr. Israel said was intended to relieve towns of the burden ?to
raise taxes or cut other services because the federal government is
pursuing humanitarian impulses.?
Other Long Island districts have deployed extra resources to smooth the
transition for new arrivals. Citing schools? obligation not to ?make any
judgment about the living situation you have,? the superintendent of
Hampton Bays Public Schools, Lars Clemensen, said staff members knocked
on children?s doors to certify their residency when more traditional
documentation proved elusive.
Still, activists say the obstacles to enrollment on Long Island reflect
a wariness toward new arrivals that prevails in schools across the
country. The federal Education Department has received at least 17
complaints nationwide since 2011 that led to legal action in school
districts, while the Justice Department has evaluated enrollment
procedures for 200 districts in Georgia alone. The Southern Poverty Law
Center and a New Orleans advocacy group last week sent letters to 55
schools there that they say were discouraging immigrant children by
seeking Social Security numbers or a parent?s state identification,
documents that illegal immigrants generally would not have.
On Long Island, where some districts in the mid-1990s tried to expel
undocumented students or required permanent resident visas to enroll,
the re-emergence of ?barriers to kids enrolling? has rocked children?s
unsettled lives, said Patrick Young, legal director for the Central
American Refugee Center, based in Brentwood and Hempstead.
?That will be traumatic because then children will enter midsemester,?
Mr. Young said of immigrants who are turned away. ?It kind of
stigmatizes them. They don?t socialize the same way.?
Such restrictions have deepened a cultural cleft in the region between
Hispanic and longtime white residents, immigrants say, putting the
promise of acceptance and economic opportunity farther out of reach.
Jorge, 16, who fled from El Salvador to Uniondale in 2012 and asked that
his surname not be used because of a continuing immigration case,
simmers at the memory of a gym teacher?s commanding two Hispanic
students who had arrived late to class to, as he recalled, ?go outside
to do 50 push-ups and come back when they were residents.?
?I felt stepped on,? Jorge continued.
Those feelings resurfaced this month as he and his mother tried to
enroll his brother Jonathan, 17, at Uniondale High School. Jonathan
traveled from El Salvador by himself in June after a gang attacked him
with a tire iron, dislodging his front teeth and leaving scars on his
scalp and right shoulder. Despite frequent inquiries at the enrollment
office, his mother, Vilma, said the school did not allow him to begin
classes until mid-October. She said the school blamed immigration
documents with an incorrect rendering of his last name.
?They don?t want to see us,? Vilma, who works at a fast-food restaurant,
said of her neighbors.
On a recent afternoon at St. Brigid?s Church, Carlos squirmed on a bench
next to Yanira Chacon, the church?s outreach worker. He smiled and spoke
about going to school to make friends and learn to play the guitar.
Hoping to help him prepare, Ms. Chacon gave Carlos a purple backpack
adorned with peace signs that was stuffed with rulers, notebooks and pens.
It lies unused on his bedroom floor.