Monday, August 29, 2016

Enrolling Refugee Children in U.S. Schools

“He doesn’t have a birth certificate.”
“You have only lived in the U.S. for a couple of months.”
“She is not the child’s legal guardian.”
“They don’t have any previous educational documents.”

For migrant families and children, one of the greatest challenges in the U.S. can be enrolling children into the local public school system. They may have trouble gathering the requested documentation, may be discouraged from enrolling due to language barriers or their age, or may be denied enrollment if their caregiver is not a parent or legal guardian. Fortunately, there are some protections for migrant children attempting to enroll in school.

All children are entitled to enroll in public schools regardless of their national origin, citizenship, or immigration status. A Dear Colleague Letter from the US Department of Education regarding school enrollment (May 8, 2014) lays out the following:
Courtesy of Catholic Charities of Tennessee

  • School districts cannot ask a student or family about their immigration status, as it is unnecessary to establish residency in a school district.
  • School districts may require proof of residency in the district, such as utility bills, lease agreements, or an affidavit, but cannot require documents that would unlawfully bar or discourage an undocumented student or a student with undocumented parents. 
  • School districts may not bar a student from enrolling if they lack a birth certificate.
  • Providing a social security number is voluntary.
  • Homeless children do not have to provide proof of residency; school districts must immediately enroll the child even if she or he doesn’t have the documents usually required.
In some cases, migrant children may be living with caregivers other than their parents. Seventeen states have consent laws which allow relative caregivers to enroll children in school. Other states do not have these laws but allow enrollment by caregivers. However, some school districts may ask for proof of guardianship or legal custody, which can have the effect of blocking a child from enrolling in school. In these situations, caregivers may work with schools to determine whether the school would accept an affidavit or other assurance of the relationship between child and caregiver. For children released from federal immigration custody, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, Division of Children’s Services (ORR/DCS) provides a Verification of Release form which includes language from the U.S. Department of Education regarding the child’s right to enroll in a public school. In some locations, the Verification of Release and ORR/DCS’s Sponsor Care Agreement may be acceptable substitutes for formal guardianship paperwork. Children and their caregivers can also be referred to their country’s nearest consular office to request assistance in obtaining documentation from their country of origin to validate identity or relationship.


In some instances, older children face an additional hurdle. Some school districts may refuse to enroll older teens or push them to adult education or GED programs. Often school districts, and sometimes even caregivers or the youth themselves, may believe that older children with limited English or prior schooling may not be able to catch up. These youths can receive, however, academic as well as non-academic benefits from being enrolled in full-time schooling: more structured and supervised hours in the classroom, tutoring help, free or reduced lunch, socialization with peers, mentoring, etc. State laws vary regarding the ages of children guaranteed schooling. The Education Commission of the States provides a state by state breakdown on age requirements as outlined in state codes. Older teens may benefit from being connected with advocates to overcome some of the barriers to school enrollment for those who are eligible based on age.

For students who arrive with incomplete or missing transcripts, policies vary greatly among states and even school districts with respect to awarding credits. Some school districts have developed forms to help “rebuild” the transcripts of foreign-born students who come without transcripts, while others will not award credits based on a student’s report of previous classes. It is best for individuals to consult with their state Department of Education if their school district does not have a policy already in place.

Below are two useful legal tools when assisting migrant families to enroll their child(ren) into a public school.

Plyler v. Doe (1982)
BRYCS Photo, Claudia Gilmore
  • Holds that States may not deny access to a basic public education to any child residing in the State, whether they are present in the in US legally or otherwise. 
McKinney-Vento Act

Ensures educational rights and protections for children and youth experiencing homelessness, and applied to all school aged children and youth.
  • The term “homeless children and youth” is defined as individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence….; and can include 
    • children and youths who are sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason; are living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or camping grounds due to the lack of alternative adequate accommodations; are living in emergency or transitional shelters; are abandoned in hospitals; or are awaiting foster care placement; 
    • children and youths who have a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings…
    • children and youths who are living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations, or similar settings; and
    • migratory children who qualify as homeless for because the children are living in circumstances described above
  • Defines an “unaccompanied youth” as a student who is not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian.
  • Some migrant children, such as those released from federal custody to a relative, may qualify for recognition under this act if they are living "doubled up" with relatives or friends. These children may benefit from recognition of their rights under this act.
The McKinney-Vento Act states that those who have been identified as “homeless children and youth” have a right to the following:
  • Immediate enrollment, even if they don't have all of their paperwork - for example, medical/health records, proof of residency, former school records, immunization records, birth certificates, proof of guardianship. The student can be enrolled in school while these records are being obtained. 
  • If a student needs to obtain immunizations or medical records, a homeless liaison should assist the student with obtaining them, and while immunizations or records are being obtained, the student should be enrolled in school. 
  • Access to all of the school's programs and services on the same basis as all other students, including special education, school nutrition programs, extracurricular activities, etc. 
  1. While legal protections exist to ensure all children, regardless of immigration status, receive an education, often migrant children and their parent/guardian need someone advocating on their behalf to ensure they are able to enroll in their local public school.
  2. Contact the homeless liaison in your school district, if you are having trouble enrolling a child or youth who falls under the McKinney-Vento definition of a “homeless child or youth” or an “unaccompanied youth.” Every school district should have a homeless liaison who should be available to assist. 
  3. The McKinney-Vento law applies to all school-aged children and youth, and does not specify an age range; therefore, if a school allows all children between the ages of 5 and 21 the right to attend school, a child identified as a “homeless child or youth” or an “unaccompanied youth” have the right to attend school up until the age stated in the law. 
  4. Encourage and advocate for parents, guardians, and sponsors to request and have school meetings in their preferred language.

This month's guest blogger: Margaret MacDonnell, BRYCS Consultant

Thursday, August 25, 2016

To Speak or Not to Speak about Past Trauma: Shifting the Focus to the Present Impacts of Current Events and Assimilation on Immigrant Children

When should we talk with a child about their past experiences with war or mass violence? Why?

In my lifetime, I’ve experienced three wars with Iraq. From my earliest memories until we left Tehran when I was seven, I woke up to citywide alarms and bombings. We had to take cover in the basement of our tall apartment building or stayed uptown at my aunt’s home, where it was supposed to be safer. Later, in the United States in 1991, I watched the televised news reports and my peers’ reactions to the Gulf War. And then in 2003 after graduate school, it began again in the aftermath of September 11.

Unable to imagine war, whenever my American friends and fellow mental health specialists find out about my exposure to war, they quickly conclude it must have had some effect on me. I’m not sure whether I’m damaged or exotic. And I imagine their questioning and awe helps with their own need to process war. It really is amazing that we are all safe and free to live happily in a society that has not experienced war in its continental borders for over 150 years.

As a mental health professional, I know it is important to talk through scary memories. Talking about memories can be helpful in reducing their intensity or make meaning from scary events. But talking will not actually eliminate the memories. I still get nervous when I hear helicopters at night hovering overhead. I live near embassies where there is higher air traffic; yet I still have to tell myself they are not war planes.

But so what? Everyone has been or will be impacted by frightening or disturbing events at some point in their life. And talking about the memories doesn’t actually address the current real life struggles, stressors, or new potential dangers in this “safe” land.

What else should we be talking about? What about present dangers and reminders of the past?

At School
Interestingly, no one ever asked me about any difficulties growing up in the United States. No one knew, not even my parents, whenever I was harassed by my peers, and even worse, by teachers. Even years after the end of the Gulf War, peers told me to ‘Go back to Iraq!’ Once a high school World History teacher approached me from behind, grabbed my backpack, and asked while laughing “Is there a bomb in there?”

Furthermore, no one ever differentiated for me that all kids, whether an immigrant or not, struggle in school at some point. Some of the events that I experienced, such as teasing, American children could relate to. And my parents were also experiencing their own challenges related to acculturation while trying to fit in at work and integrate into the community. Always looking and being from somewhere different, a certain level of normalization would have been more comforting than a discussion of war that further set me apart from my peers.

In the News and Social Media
In elementary school, I watched my peers’ reactions to the Gulf War. While I was excited that my friends finally learned where Iraq and Iran are, I was further embarrassed with the new associations. Fortunately, I grew up in the United States at a time when the media communicated the news much differently. News was broadcast four times during the day, 24-hour news channels on cable didn’t exist, and there was no social media. It felt like a much safer time; maybe because we were protected from repetitive exposure to viewing toxic trauma stories (highly emotionally arousing stories with no resolution)1

BRYCS Photo / Courtesy of CSS Anchorage
Now in the age of digital communication, we are repetitively informed and alerted that we live in times of mass shootings, regular events of terrorism, and ongoing mass migration of people fleeing war and seeking refuge. Despite increased security, places all around the world that appeared safe before, could be attacked at any time. And up until last summer, cable news channels were still talking about a potential war with Iran. 

Exposure to videos and repetitive clips of violence on the news and social media can be disturbing for both children and their parents. Additionally, they may be learning about disturbing events still occurring in their home country and or countries of refuge. Immigrants can harbor guilt for having survived and left their families and friends behind.

It is important that parents and providers make opportunities to connect to children’s and youth’s experiences and struggles at school and in the community. Explore the presence of problems with other students, bullies, and teachers. Inquire from children and youth what they’ve seen on the news and social media. Ask them if it reminds them of anything. Ask about their fears. When parents monitor social media, in addition to monitoring for inappropriate content, warn them to look for any exposure to disturbing current events. Encourage parents to talk to their children and help them process acts of mass violence (war, terrorism, mass shootings). If you do chose to speak about past trauma, try to explore it in the context of the impact on the present.

Finally, we should honor an immigrant’s decision to not talk about the past. People shut down or they may need to forget a certain part of their lives—this is a valuable coping skill. Human beings are highly adaptable; only a tiny percent get and remain “traumatized”. And never forget that helping others with sad, scary or angry stories requires helpers to take care of themselves so they can continue to help others heal and flourish.

A webinar follows and will focus on learning and responding to a child’s current difficulties and impact of past trauma stories. We welcome your questions and comments below on interventions with immigrant children and parents on addressing impacts of current events and assimilation.

This month's guest blogger: Goli Amin Bellinger, MSW, LICSW, University of Maryland Baltimore, School of Social Work

1.  Mollica, Richard F. (2006). Healing invisible wounds: Paths to hope and recovery in a violent world. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Unaccompanied Children: Factors in Successful Integration

Courtesy of CC of Tennessee
Unaccompanied children (UC) who have been migrating from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala to the United States for years, were largely unnoticed by the general population until this phenomenon captured our nation’s attention in the summer of 2014. That year, the number of unaccompanied children that showed up at the US – Mexico border reached approximately 68,000 – a 75% increase from the year before. Since then, the number of UC’s apprehended at the border has decreased, however, the flow of migration of these children – escaping targeted and generalized gang violence, domestic abuse, and economic disparity – is steady and not showing signs of stopping any time soon. Their presence in the U.S. sparked our curiosity about what it’s like to be an unaccompanied youth integrating into a local community.

From an empirical standpoint, little is known about what factors impact their successful integration. Additionally, very little research has been done on this topic from the perspective of youth. We believe their voice matters most, therefore we conducted a research analysis highlighting the youth’s perspective, along with their caregivers and case managers, to help gain a better understanding about what helps UCs adjust and integrate.

USCCB/MRS staff used both qualitative and quantitative research techniques to gather data. Former UC youth, caregivers, and case managers connected to FC and FR programs participated in interviews. Subsequently, surveys were developed to gather quantitative data in line with the emergent themes, and the data was analyzed for trends related to each theme. The interviews and surveys focused on topics related to community, activities, safety, adjustment, youth goals, legal services, aspects of caregiving, and the role of case managers.

In our research, youth reported repeatedly that their legal immigration status in the United States has a significant impact on their ability to integrate into communities. One of the most significant challenges a lack of legal status brings to the youth is the stigma and fear of deportation that impede on their daily lives. Simple activities like walking down the street to school can be clouded with the fear of deportation. Other challenges commonly expressed from youth, caregivers, and case managers include cost and difficulties in obtaining legal representation, the extended length of time it takes for their case to process through Immigration Courts, and the confusion of the process itself. One case manager commented on the impact of UC’s not having legal counsel: “If they don’t have the money it’s hard for them. Even though they may qualify [for a legal status] they won’t get it because they don’t have an attorney and they can’t afford it.” Unaccompanied children are faced with the reality that no matter their actual need for protection, remaining legally in the United States and finding protection is often contingent upon having an attorney. Consequently, when youth obtain a legal status, it is a significant factor in successfully integrating into the U.S.; “It’s definitely a sigh of relief. You may see a youth who was hunched over a little, and now they are standing straight because they know ‘I’m here, I’m legally here.’”

Community Setting
As the environment in which youth reside, access services, and interact with peers and adults, the community setting is an important context for the process of integration. As several reports[1] have demonstrated, these youth are fleeing generalized violence and the threat of gangs. When reflecting back on her initial move, one youth shared: “At first, I thought, since it’s a big state, that it was going to be violent and full of gangs, but then I realized it has many good things.” The importance of being able to freely walk the streets or through their own choices to avoid dangerous situations was an important difference about life in their new communities. Basic needs, such as safety, accessible medical and mental health services, and the opportunity to find support among peers or their ethnic community were highlighted in interviews as a foundation for youth to transition from survival to success.

Everyone we interviewed spoke to the crucial role of the school setting in assisting or hindering a youth’s integration. One case worker stated it is the “key player” in integration due to the amount of time youth spend in school. This is the space in which they learn, not just academics, but social skills and cultural norms and create relationships with both peers and academic professionals. Case workers reported that schools that were accommodating to UC and their needs had a correlation on youth doing well in school. One notable way schools met the needs of UC youth was by initiating English as a Second Language (ESL) programs tailored to the needs to the youth. In instances when a youth finds a particular subject or area difficult, the case worker will tell them, “You took a 3,000 mile journey, this is easier than that!” They reported that this helps the youth put things into perspective. The educational setting also helps these youth because of the relationships they are able to create with peers and teachers. Caregivers also recognize the importance of youth attending school and the opportunities it brings. One sponsor said, “…I want her to continue studying. She only needs a little more to finish her schooling. In our country she wasn’t studying, but here she can do this for herself.”

Case Management
Case managers also play a critical role in fostering successful integration of youth into communities. They are often the gateway to various needed services that meet the immediate needs of the youth and their families and act as advocates on behalf of the youth. While we went into this study focused on the role of the case manager with the youth, interviews exposed the importance of the role they play with the caregiver as well. Case managers that were culturally competent and accessible appeared to have the most impact. Care givers and youth noted how helpful they are as they provide of tools for empowerment and act as resource and cultural brokers. One caregiver noted about their case manager, “The most important thing that [a case worker] has done for my children is, well, everything. They recommended the doctors, counselors, attorneys. [The case worker] has been there with us.” The support the case manager provides to the UC and their family has a considerable impact on the lives of families and often guides youth to move towards successful integration.

Family and Relational Support
The centrality of relational and family support in the lives in unaccompanied children cannot likely be overstated. The role of competent caregivers, supportive adults, and positive peers are foundational to the development of all children and youth. The fact that these children have experienced separation from their parents for any period of their lives only underscores the importance of a safe and loving home environment in which they can process past trauma and begin the work of adjusting to a new country and way of life.

Two quotes from youth demonstrate the importance of home life from different perspectives. The first said, “In my opinion if there isn’t any peace in the home, people, including me, think ‘I don’t want to go home, I want to be somewhere else’ and you are constantly thinking this all day even while you’re in school, and that’s all you think about.” And another described, “I’ll talk to my foster mom and I’ll ask her ‘What do you think of this?’ She’ll say, ‘I think that is a good idea!’, or ‘I don’t think that’s a good way to look at it.’ […] Just knowing that there is someone supporting me, that I am not alone in all of this, that there is one place in this world where my opinion matters, my voice matters, and that I mean something to someone - that helps me a lot.”

Youth Strengths
Throughout all the interviews with case managers, caregivers, and program management, one common word was continuously used to describe unaccompanied youth: Resilient. While research on the resiliency of the forced migrant is not new, the focus of this study was to assess specifically which strategies unaccompanied youth are utilizing in order to cope with their new life in the U.S. They are enrolled in school and they are giving back to their community. In regards to the strengths that they possess, we found that youth are utilizing positive coping skills, have goals they would like to achieve, have gained self-awareness, and are vested in helping others, either in their home country or in their communities in the U.S. One interviewed youth stated, “My dream, when I was in El Salvador, was to hold a high school diploma in my hands. I was never able to accomplish it. So now that I am here, I’ve talked to my counselors and they told me that I could study and that the program was going to help me. Then I was like, ‘I want a career!’ This opportunity changed my dreams. I want to study, I want to finish high school, I want to go to college, and I want to have a career…I want to teach, I want to be a music teacher....It makes me really happy to know that there are people that support me and believe I can achieve it all, and I CAN achieve it all!”

The process of integrating into the U.S. is daunting and confusing; however, regardless of which program services unaccompanied youth, all deserve to have their needs heard and to have case workers that can be an advocate for them. As USCCB/MRS continues to offer programing to UCs and as UCs continue to be placed with sponsors or foster care providers in the United States, we hope this research can help inform our work with this population and become a springboard for further research.

[1] Mission to Central America: The Flight of Unaccompanied Children to the United States , < >; Children on the Run: Unaccompanied Children Leaving Central America and Mexico and the Need for International Protection < >; No Childhood Here: Why Central American Children are Fleeing Their Homes, < >; A Treacherous Journey: Child Migrants Navigating the U.S. Immigration System < >