Massive Release of Children From the Border Has Put ‘Unprecedented,’ Strain on American Schools

Tens of thousands of children of illegal immigrants who crossed the southern border alone and were released in the U.S. to an adult sponsor have been enrolled in public schools across the nation under President Joe Biden, putting educators in a challenging position.

Over the past three years, over 8 million people have been encountered at the southern border, including almost 500,000 unaccompanied minors, which doesn’t include children who arrived with a family member.

The impact of so many children arriving in America and enrolling in schools across the country has been significant, according to policy experts on immigration.

“Although the majority of U.S. schools receiving unaccompanied minors and other educators have described the number of newcomers arriving in the 2023-23 school year as unprecedented,” said Julie Sugarman, the associate director of K-12 education research at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, in an email.

Minors who have come across the U.S.-Mexico border are often protected from immediate removal and will be transferred from the custody of the Border Patrol to the Department of Health and Human Services. HHS will then look for a relative or parent in the U.S. to release the child while they wait for immigration proceedings, possibly years later. However, the child may be released to an adult who is not related if a family member cannot be located.

“They have a right — just like other children living in their community — to enroll in local schools regardless of their or their sponsors’ actual or perceived immigration or citizenship status,” states the HHS website. “State laws also require children to attend school up to a certain age.”

This flood of children into the U.S. has surprised educators. Since President Joe Biden took office in early 2021, data from the Department of Homeland Security shows 464,000 children have crossed the border unaccompanied.

Of those 464,000, approximately 391,000 children have been released into the country between fiscal year 2021 and January 2024. Fiscal year 2021 started shortly before the November 2020 election while former President Donald Trump was still in the Oval Office.

According to Democrat Alderman Raymond Lopes in the Washington Examiner, Chicago Public Schools has registered between 12,000 and 14,000 immigrant children who arrived from the southern border. This number represents approximately 4% of the district’s 323,000 student population.

As of January of this year, 34,000 of the city of New York’s 915,000 students enrolled were immigrant minors who arrived from the border — about 3% of all students and not including illegal immigrant children who entered the country during the Obama and Trump administrations.

A new report from Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank, concluded New York spent millions of dollars to educate the thousands of newly enrolled children from the border.

“In New York, 8,477 unaccompanied alien children were sent to sponsors, according to [Office of Refugee Resettlement] data. New York spends $28,261 per pupil, making the total additional cost to taxpayers close to $240 million for one year,” concluded Heritage in its February report.

School budgets are set in March, around six months before the beginning of the school year, and “administrators are stretched to accommodate new arrivals without having access to additional funds,” said Sugarman.

“Nearly constant flow of new arrivals” difficult to manage

The “nearly constant flow of new arrivals” is tricky to manage because each student must be assessed for academic level and English language proficiency and then provided an orientation to the school’s routines and system, said Sugarman. Most of the immigrant children don’t arrive with school transcripts.

“The second challenging area for schools is that more new arrivals are coming with greater educational and socioemotional needs than educators have seen in the past. Many students — especially teenagers — arrive with limited or interrupted formal education, requiring intensive support, and others have trauma from experiences in their home country or during travel,” explained Sugarman.

Although schools work with nonprofit organizations and social services agencies to meet students’ language needs, qualified bilingual staff “may be in short supply.”

“About half of English Learner newcomers speak languages other than Spanish, so finding appropriate interpreters or training staff to use telephone interpretation services for those families can be more challenging,” Sugarman explained.

Vice president for policy and advocacy at the child immigrant advocacy group Kids in Need of Defense or KIND, Jennifer Podkul, said the U.S. government must consider how it is handling unaccompanied minors’ arrivals to start with, including rapidly adjudicating children’s claims.

“What can the U.S. be doing to help build child protection systems in these countries where kids are coming from so that they don’t have to leave in the first place?” queried Podkul. “How do we quickly get to the bottom of their story and figure out ‘Is this really a child in need of international protection or is this a child who can be returned and go back to their community of origin and might just need a little bit of support to be successful there, whether that’s education or employment opportunities?”