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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Hempstead pays for Washington foot-dragging on immigration

Students listen to a lecture on May 1,

Students listen to a lecture on May 1, 2013. Photo Credit: Heather Walsh

The state Education Department on Friday fired off a letter to all New York school districts reminding them of federal and state laws that require enrolling children regardless of their immigration status.

That came after Education Commissioner John B. King Jr.'s unprecedented order on Thursday directing the Nassau County BOCES to investigate and ensure that Hempstead schools properly handle an influx of unaccompanied minors who crossed the border from Mexico into the United States and were resettled with relatives and guardians in the district.

That came after complaints that Hempstead was not allowing at least 34 Hispanic students -- some of them living in the country without legal permission -- into classes. With that, Hempstead became the domino that began the cascade of state education directives.

But Hempstead, New York State and other municipalities and school districts around the nation have been left on their own to handle the influx of thousands of children living in the country illegally, because of foot dragging in Washington.

And President Barack Obama didn't help matters by putting off attempts to untangle the nation's immigration mess until after the upcoming elections. What's happening in Hempstead is a microcosm of the impact of Washington's three-decade-long delay in enacting sensible immigration reform.

Hempstead's schools also are a reflection of Hempstead Village, which has been dealing with the impact of immigrants entering the country illegally for decades.

In the 1980s, then-Mayor James Garner, a Republican and the first African-American to serve as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, wrestled with finding enough money to fund increased garbage collections and the local sewer system, which was straining to cope with unanticipated use.

The problem? Because of immigrants living here without legal permission, the village had far more residents than the U.S. Census reflected.

Even back then, the federal government pretty much left Garner and his village to deal with the impact of an unexpected rise in population -- just as the federal government has abandoned the school district today.

Hempstead, as one of the lowest-performing districts in the state, has one of the highest costs per pupil -- funded by local property taxes (in a region with some of the highest taxes in the nation) along with a significant sum of supplemental state money.

Which means that with the latest influx of children, Hempstead and New York State residents will bear the additional cost of educating one of the largest contingents of unescorted immigrant children in the tri-state region. In fact, the latest federal figures for this year show Nassau and Suffolk counties were third nationally in the number of resettled unaccompanied minors.

Last week, a woman wearing an electronic ankle bracelet that allows immigration agents to track her complained that her two sons were not being admitted to Hempstead schools.

Is the woman with the bracelet going to be allowed to stay in the United States? And what of her two sons? Are they coming? Going? Are the accommodations Hempstead plans to make now supposed to be temporary or permanent?

The nation needs sensible immigration reform. And Hempstead's experience should be more than enough to drive that point home.

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