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Long IslandEducation

AG looks at school district’s initial refusal to enroll immigrant student

Marlon Velásquez, 16, a native of El Salvador

Marlon Velásquez, 16, a native of El Salvador who came to the United States last spring as an unaccompanied minor, is shown in the West Babylon apartment in which he lives with his aunt on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016. Photo Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

The state attorney general’s office said it is “actively looking” into a complaint that the North Babylon school district initially refused to enroll a teenager from El Salvador who crossed the United States border illegally as an unaccompanied minor and resettled here with an aunt.

The school district this week reversed its decision to bar Marlon Velásquez, saying it will permit the 16-year-old to enroll at North Babylon High School after all.

In a letter to the aunt last month, the district had said Velásquez would “not be permitted to attend . . . on a tuition-free basis.” That letter noted that his mother lives in El Salvador and stated, “A child’s residence is presumed to be that of the parent.”

North Babylon school officials “upon further review” decided Velásquez can enroll, but they cannot discuss the matter because of the student’s privacy rights, a spokeswoman said.

The teenager’s immigration attorney, Bryan Johnson, said North Babylon’s reversal came after he complained to Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman’s office and the state Education Department about what Johnson contends is illegal treatment of immigrant minors.

“They had to be confronted with the law, basically, before they reversed the decision,” said Johnson, a partner in a Bay Shore law firm. “We don’t know how many other children were denied enrollment because they were told their parents lived in a foreign country.”

Under federal and state law, all children are entitled to a public school education regardless of their immigration status.

Velásquez, in an interview, said he wants to go to school, learn English and become a chef. Since he arrived on Long Island, he has trailed a relative at a restaurant job and learned to make desserts such as pecan tart, cheesecake and crêpes suzette.

“I don’t know why they would say they don’t want me in school,” the teenager said in Spanish. “I thought every young person had to go to school here.”

The district’s initial letter, signed by North Babylon student data services director Daniel Rose and dated Aug. 11, notified the child’s aunt, María Mejía, that the teen “is not a resident of North Babylon” and that she had told the district he is living here “because of educational opportunities” not available in his home country.

The letter pointed out that his mother “resides in El Salvador,” outside the boundaries of the district, and a “transfer of custody cannot be made solely to take advantage of the services of a school district.”

A spokesman for Schneiderman, in a statement, said Wednesday, “We are aware of the complaint and are actively looking into it.”

The North Babylon matter involves one child out of 2,093 unaccompanied minors who have resettled on Long Island in the current federal fiscal year from October through the end of July — an increase of 86 percent over the entire 2015 fiscal year, according to figures updated recently by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement.

The Hempstead and Westbury school systems are among 23 school districts in the state whose enrollment procedures are being monitored by the attorney general’s office because of issues involving immigrant minors.

The oversight began after a surge of unaccompanied minors entering the United States reached a peak in 2014, with children largely coming to this country to escape violence and poverty in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Many resettled with sponsors in New York, with the majority coming to established Central American immigrant communities in Nassau and Suffolk counties.

This year, the numbers of unaccompanied minors again are rising, and Long Island ranks among the top resettlement areas nationwide.

The state Education Department has emphasized in guidelines to districts that public schools must enroll recent arrivals between ages 5 and 21 who are physically present and intend to reside in those districts, as prescribed under federal and state law.

A department spokesman said the agency could not comment on a specific individual’s case because any related appeal of an enrollment decision would go before the education commissioner.

Deirdre Gilligan, a spokeswoman for North Babylon schools, said the district had addressed the issue but could not elaborate on its decisions. She confirmed that “the child is being permitted into the district” and that his aunt had been notified to meet with district staff to enroll him.

Velásquez said he left his Salvadoran hometown of Poloros because he feared for his life after he saw a friend shot and killed last year. Gang members roamed the streets, he said, and he didn’t see a future there.

He made the trek of more than 1,000 miles to the United States’ border with Mexico last spring with another teenager, riding by bus from El Salvador through Mexico and crossing the Rio Grande by inflatable raft into Texas.

Once taken into custody by U.S. Border Patrol agents, he was placed in a federal shelter pending his release to live with his aunt, which occurred in April. Under federal immigration law, the process provides for children in Velásquez’s situation to have requests for legal status or asylum heard in courts.

Mejía said her struggles with the school district started in May, when she went to register him and was told to return in July. She said she provided documentation the district requested, including a birth certificate, and school attendance and health records.

She said she was sent to an interview with a district official, who recorded their conversation and asked questions about why the child had come here.

Mejía, 38, a factory worker, said she is content to finally have her nephew signed up for the start of classes on Tuesday.

“I am happy and I thank God and the people who helped,” Mejía said in Spanish. “All I want is for him to go to school . . . and I’m grateful for the schools and the teachers educating the children.”

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