In Washington, the debate over the child and family migrant crisis has focused on what can be done at the border to expedite the processing of Central American children and families, or what can be done to deter future migrants from making the dangerous journey through Mexico to the US.
Elsewhere in the country, the debate's been about what comes after children are processed at the border. In some towns, activists have tried to stop local facilities from being used as temporary detention centers for migrant families before their deportation. In others, local officials have invited the government to use buildings to house children temporarily, while the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (part of the Department of Health and Human Services) looks for relatives or family friends who can take them in while their immigration cases work through the courts.
Less attention's been paid to what happens after that: where child migrants live when they're released into relatives' custody. But that's where children will be staying for months or years, and where they'll actually be interacting with other members of the community and going to school.
Where children are going — and where they might strain the system
The Office of Refugee Resettlement doesn't provide data on where, exactly, immigrant children are being released. But it does break releases down by state. Unsurprisingly, the states that have taken in the most children since October 2013 are the states with the largest established immigrant populations: Texas, New York, California, Florida. But these places are likely used to new immigrant arrivals, and have the infrastructure in place to integrate children easily.
The places most likely to be overwhelmed by the current influx aren't the ones where the most children are coming, but where the most children are coming relative to the immigrant children already in the state. And those states are in the Deep South — particularly Louisiana.
Louisiana, with 1,071 children having arrived since October of 2013, has a child-migrant intake that is 10 percent of it's population of foreign-born children. No other state's recent child-migrant intake even hits 5 percent. And while, in most states, the number of newly-arrived child migrants isn't even 1 percent of the current Central American population, in Louisiana (and a few other states in the Deep South) it's over 3 percent. So if there's anywhere in America where local communities would be struggling to handle the influx of child migrants, it would probably be Louisiana.
New Orleans schools are racing to accommodate new migrants
According to Martin Gutierrez, the Resettlement Director for Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, "I haven't heard of any group, any school, any institution at all feeling overwhelmed." He says that New Orleans has "seen an increasing Hispanic population overall anyway. So it's nothing new. It's just the numbers are a little bigger."
But New Orleans schools have only started working to catch up to the growth of the Spanish-speaking population — so as the school year begins this week, they're racing to provide enough support to the children who continue to arrive.
One school's seen its English Language Learner population spike from 1 percent of students last year to 10 percent this year, about 70 children. Whitney Wiegand is the school's first ESL teacher; she was hired in May. Her school has already hired a second ESL teacher, she says, "because our numbers of Spanish-speaking students sort of exploded in this past month."
Some of those students have come from other schools, but many are new arrivals in the US. On the first day of school, Wiegand asked her middle-schoolers, "Where were you this time last year?"
"It felt like the majority [said they] had been enrolled in school in Honduras," she says.
But they're welcoming, not overwhelmed
Wiegand doesn't know how many of her students came across the border unaccompanied or are living with relatives other than their parents now. But she's working with her school's social worker to prepare for the emotional difficulties her students might face: the struggle to adjust in the US, and the possible trauma of their journey. They've been looking for resources and organizations in the New Orleans area, and have already partnered up with a local nonprofit, Puentes, that's helping with outreach.
Wiegand was previously an ESL teacher in Chicago, and she admits that New Orleans can be less "user-friendly" to Spanish-speaking families than cities where the Hispanic population is more established. "If I were a parent, I would probably be a little more frustrated or uneasy," she says. She's been spending the last month just helping families with the complicated process of enrolling their children in school.
Some of her school's teachers are a little anxious about "having a third of their classrooms not speak the same language." But she hasn't seen any backlash to the new immigrants themselves. To the contrary, teachers are working to build a "welcoming environment" in their classrooms.
"I think everyone in the building has the mentality that our job is to serve the students in the city, and if the demographic of the city is growing and changing, our job doesn't change at all with that change in demographic."
Gutierrez, of Catholic Charities, also says he hasn't seen any backlash from other community members. While communities elsewhere are fighting to keep children and families from being detained or held in their towns — even though they won't be released into the community there — the people among whom children are actually settling don't seem to mind.
Louisiana is the state where newly arrived child migrants are likely to have the biggest impact — and could overwhelm support structures.
At the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year, 1 percent of the students at one New Orleans charter school were English Language Learners. When school started Monday, that was up to 10 percent — with 90 percent of the students coming from Honduras, the country that's sent the most unaccompanied children over the border.
Whitney Wiegand, who was hired as the school's first full-time ESL teacher in May, has been working with the families of these 70 students to make it easier for them to enroll — and to help them begin to integrate into their new lives in the US. I spoke to Wiegand on Tuesday, to ask her about what her school's done to accommodate such a sudden increase in immigrant enrollment — and whether it can handle the influx with the resources it has.
Dara Lind: Can you talk about the resources that your school already has in place, as the school year starts, to address the growing number of immigrant children?
Whitney Wiegand: I'm brand new to the city and to the school, and we're just starting this week. So I'm still learning the ropes on under what circumstances these students came here and what services they need.
New Orleans, and our school, has seen a pretty big influx recently of Spanish-speaking students and Spanish-speaking families. So it's definitely a growing population in the city, and it's also a population that's previously been pretty underserved, because it is such a small portion of who lives here and the students who attend school. The school where I'm working realized that we needed to focus more in this area, so I was hired on to be a full-time ESL teacher and to set up a program here that will be able to offer students an inclusive education. They'll still be part of their generalized classes but also have some very intensive English-language support.
Dara Lind: When were you hired?
Whitney Wiegand: I was hired at the end of May. In New Orleans, all of the schools are charter schools now, and the network that I'm working with has five schools. Last year, they had two ESL teachers who were sort of servicing all five schools and splitting their days. The specific campus where I'm at recently saw a pretty big influx last year in the population of Spanish-speaking students, so they got funds to have me be full-time here. And they actually just yesterday hired a second full-time ESL teacher, because our numbers of Spanish-speaking students sort of exploded in this past month to a point that it would have been really difficult for me to support them all.
Dara Lind: Even though school just started this week, you've been working with some of these families for the past month. What have you been doing?
Whitney Wiegand: Our school made an effort in particular to recruit families who speak Spanish, because they saw a lot of these students are not being well-served in the schools they're in now, and they thought, since we're throwing in this effort to really do this work well, we want to make sure the communities know about it. So part of my role was recruitment, letting families know that we exist, and that we're going to be providing better services this year. And then a lot of it has been helping families enroll —just been walking parents through the process of enrolling their kids, making sure they have the correct paperwork.
Dara Lind: Has the spike in students been the result of your recruitment efforts?
Whitney Wiegand: A tiny bit of [the increased enrollment] is the work we've done. My impression is that a lot of it is word of mouth. People from a given country tend to either have family, relatives or neighbors [in the area] — there's some reason they've arrived in New Orleans, and oftentimes it's that they already know someone here. I only talked in the month of July to maybe a handful of families, but all of a sudden we had cousins and neighbors and other students trying to enroll as well.
Dara Lind: How many of the new students have just come from outside the US, and how many have transferred from other schools?
Whitney Wiegand: I've mostly worked with the middle school students so far. I asked them the first day, "Where were you this time last year?" It felt like the majority had been enrolled in school in Honduras. Or in Guatemala or Nicaragua. There's a handful that are from other countries. I can think of two or three, off the top of my head, who mentioned they were in other schools last year in New Orleans that got shut down since then. And I'd say, in the middle school, almost half of our students are returning. So they were here last year.
Last year we started the year with three Spanish-speaking students, and we finished the year with 13. So our population grew quite a bit during the year. And I think some was word of mouth, and some of that was students who had just moved to the city.
Dara Lind: In the first couple of days, or during your home visits, did you see anything that indicated these kids might have come to the US unaccompanied — like staying with other relatives or friends, rather than parents?
Whitney Wiegand: I have a couple of kids who, at the end of the day, it's either like uncles or a neighbor who picks them up. In some families it seems that they'll have multiple children who have all arrived here at different times.
From my experience working in Chicago, asking about immigration information and how people arrived here is a sensitive subject. It's not something I'm blatantly asking. But at the same time, I feel like it's part of the education we provide these kids: thinking about "by what means did you come here, and what sacrifices did people maybe make that led you here, and what opportunities do you have here that might not have existed in your home country?" So it is something I'm hoping to get to. But I do know that, depending on circumstances, a lot of families and parents and kids tend to keep that information to themselves, at least at first.
Dara Lind: As the year continues, students might begin to open up about trauma they might have experienced, or cope with the emotional difficulty of the journey they took and being in a new country. What are you and Annie Bachrach (the school's social worker) doing to prepare for that?
Whitney Wiegand: That's a big question mark that's on Annie's and my mind, that she brought to me first thing when we met last week. Her job is to provide that kind of support, and if you don't have the language in common, how feasible is that work? I can speak Spanish with the kids, but I don't have official training in providing that kind of support. So that was part of the reason that we've been looking for resources, and Annie found a couple of organizations and documents that do have things like that in Spanish.
Dara Lind: How would you compare this to your prior ESL teaching experience in Chicago?
Whitney Wiegand: Chicago has such a huge Latino population that the system was a bit more user-friendly. All the documents were already translated, both at the city level and at the school level. And it felt like there was always a bilingual person available. So the language barrier existed but it felt like less of a challenge. Whereas here, because it's such a small part of the population, I do feel like it's a little more difficult. If I were a parent, I would probably be a little more frustrated or uneasy about how things are going, and that there's not a ton of information out there. That's one thing Annie and I are working on: thinking what resources do exist in New Orleans, and how can we get those into the hands of our families.
Dara Lind: Annie Bachrach has been working with the group Puentes to assist with outreach. How did they get involved?
Whitney Wiegand: Puentes was a big resource [Bachrach] found, and someone that we're hoping to work with. The only thing I thought was interesting was, I think they mentioned to her and she mentioned offhandedly to me that one challenge for them is finding these Spanish-speaking families and Latino families within New Orleans, and this idea that we could be mutually beneficial to each other. They have resources that we can use, and we now have access to a growing part of this population that they would want to collaborate with us [to serve], which I think is exciting.
Dara Lind: How well-equipped would you say the school is to handle the number of immigrant students it has now, or the possibility that more might continue to come?
Whitney Wiegand: In terms of teachers feeling super-confident right now, that they can handle having a third of their classrooms not speak the same language, there's some discomfort there and some anxiety. In terms of the fact that these teachers are incredibly hardworking and very intelligent and talented and will find a way to make it work, I'd say very well-equipped.
By the end of this week, we're hoping, I'll start pulling students out in smaller groups and be able to give them intensive English instruction, but it's only one piece of what we need to do to support them. I think teachers are really excited to think about how they can tweak their practice, to make sure they're meeting the needs of all of these students.
Dara Lind: Have you seen any resistance or backlash in the school or the broader community to the arrival of so many children?
Whitney Wiegand: I haven't had any chance to interact with parents of students who do not speak Spanish, so that's one demographic I cannot speak for.
There's some teachers in this building who've been teaching for 10 years and have had minimal experience teaching Spanish-speaking students. So I know there's a little anxiety, in terms of "Wow, this is new and different, I thought I knew how to teach and this is sort of an oddball variable." But I wouldn't say there's backlash or pushback.
Everyone in this building has the mentality that our job is to serve the students in the city, and if the demographic of the city is growing and changing, our job doesn't change at all with that change in demographic.