Unaccompanied by adults, migrant children put a strain on local resources

June 23, 2014
Christian M. Wade

Statehouse reporter

---- — LYNN — An influx of children from Central America immigrating to the United States without their parents is frustrating officials in this gritty city nearly 2,200 miles from the Mexican border.

In the past two years, Lynn has seen waves of unaccompanied minors settle here after crossing the U.S.-Mexican border illegally, city officials say. Most are teenage boys from Guatemala who speak little or no English when they arrive, and they have little or no documentation.

“We have become a major haven for immigration,” said Mayor Judy Kennedy. “But with all these new people come needs: police, fire and city services. And we’re getting no help from the federal government.”

More than 45,000 children traveling alone from Central America have been detained at the U.S. border with Mexico, according to the Customs and Border Protection agency, which predicts the number could swell to 90,000 by year’s end. Some are teenagers, though others are younger.

Federal officials are opening centers to house the children, on military bases and in private facilities, until they can be reunited with family in the United States or deported. Their numbers are so large that President Barack Obama has called the situation a “humanitarian crisis.”

Exactly how many unaccompanied immigrant children are coming to Massachusetts is unclear. Officials from the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement declined to discuss the issue, and state officials said they don’t track such immigration cases.

Other cities north of Boston have large immigrant communities — 38 percent of Lawrence residents and 17 percent of those in Salem are immigrants, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — but they don’t appear to draw as many children traveling alone as Lynn.

In Salem and Lawrence, school officials said they have taken in a few unaccompanied minors in the current school year, but most new arrivals to their communities come from the Dominican Republic, not Central America.

“Obviously, students from the Dominican Republic aren’t crossing the Rio Grande to get here,” said Kinnon Foley, who runs the English as a second language program at Lawrence Schools. “It’s just the demographics of Lawrence. We don’t have a huge Central American population like Lynn and Boston.”

In Lynn, the city’s already-crowded schools have been overwhelmed by the rush of immigrant children, officials said. Since the 2011-12 school year, the number of immigrant students attending Lynn schools has grown from 36 to 538. Most are from Guatemala and the Dominican Republic.

“We have gotten enough new students to build a school, but unfortunately, we don’t have the money to build a school,” Kennedy said.

Many show up to register for school with copies of documents issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, providing a photo and basic information such as age and place of origin. Federal immigration law prohibits public schools from requiring a birth certificate or other documentation.

“We don’t know if they’ve been vaccinated, whether they have been involved in gangs or crime, or if they’re really the age they say they are,” said Kennedy, who also chairs the School Committee. “And we can’t even ask them. We just have to take them on their word.”

The city of 91,589 already has a large immigrant population — nearly one-third of its residents, according to Census Bureau estimates — and many of them are from Central America. That, coupled with the city’s surplus of affordable rental properties, has drawn new waves of immigration, Lynn officials say.

Lynn has also found itself on the receiving end of hundreds fleeing war-torn countries. The city has become the state’s hub for asylum-seekers, many from Iraq and Somalia, according to the Massachusetts Office of Refugees and Immigrants. More than 200 refugees are projected to settle there in the coming year. The state agency, however, doesn’t track unaccompanied minors.

Lynn Schools Superintendent Catherine Latham said the district has tried to accommodate the new arrivals.

“Some of them sign their names with an ‘X’ because they’ve never been to school a day in their lives,” Latham said. “So, it’s been a real challenge.”

Initially, the schools created a special night program to educate the young men, but the district was forced to include them in the general student population after the U.S. Department of Justice threatened litigation.

Latham said they decided to place most of them in the ninth grade at Lynn Classical High School because they couldn’t verify their ages. Administrators are concerned that some of the young men are actually in their early 20s and attending classes with 14- and 15-year-olds, she said.

Luis Gomez, a member of the nonprofit Student Immigration Movement’s chapter in Lynn, said many of the young immigrants flee gangs, drugs and political corruption. They’ve come to Lynn to find work and education.

“There’s a lot of violence, especially in Guatemala, so families are trying to do what’s best for their kids,” he said. “They just want a better life.”

Meanwhile, he said, volunteers with the Student Immigration Movement have been told that federal immigrant agents are conducting weekly raids in Lynn, in some cases stopping cars with migrant workers to check their IDs. He said dozens have been detained in recent weeks for deportation proceedings.

“People are living in fear,” said Gomez, who emigrated to the U.S. from Guatemala as a child. “They don’t want to be deported.”

Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington D.C., said the flow of unaccompanied children has exposed gaping holes in the nation’s immigration policies that are being gamed by smugglers bringing people across the border.

“They study our policies and figure out how to exploit them,” Vaughan said. “Often, there is no real verification by federal authorities that these people who are claiming the kids are actually parents or family members.”

On June 2, President Obama issued a memorandum ordering the Department of Homeland Security to establish a group to deal with the influx of unaccompanied children. The Federal Emergency Management Agency was to coordinate the effort and ensure that humanitarian relief was provided to the children, including housing, care, medical treatment and transportation.

This week, Vice President Joe Biden met with Guatemalan president Otto Perez Molina and senior officials from Honduras and El Salvador — the three countries that are home to most of the children who have ended up in immigration detention facilities near the U.S. border.

Federal officials have also enlisted more judges and immigration lawyers to handle the huge numbers of child and adult asylum seekers from Central America. Many are expected to be deported, officials said.

“When an individual’s case is fully heard, and it is found that the individual does not qualify for asylum, he or she will be immediately removed,” Alejandro Mayorkas, deputy director of the Department of Homeland Security, told reporters in a conference call on Friday. “Many individuals from Central America are found to be ineligible for these forms of protections and are, in fact, promptly removed.”

Lynn officials said they have reached out to state and federal lawmakers, including Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass. They even had a meeting last year with the consulate general of Guatemala, who traveled from Rhode Island to discuss the controversial issue.

“Nobody is going to touch this,” Latham said. “It’s a political bombshell.”

Tierney said he has met with federal officials to press for money and resources for the city to help deal with the influx of immigrants.

“We are also pressing them for improvements in advance notice of impending relocations and increased monitoring of placements,” Tierney said in a statement. “This is an ongoing conversation.”

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse. He can be reached at cwade@cnhi.com Follow him on Twitter: @cmwade1969.