The number of Central American children illegally crossing the U.S. border with Mexico and coming to Long Island is rising again after a decline last year, federal statistics show.
Suffolk and Nassau counties remain among the top locations nationally where children under 18 who came to this country as unaccompanied minors have settled with relatives and sponsors while awaiting action on requests for special immigrant juvenile status and petitions for asylum, according to data through June for the federal fiscal year ending Sept. 30.
Suffolk ranked third and Nassau ranked eighth for counties with unaccompanied children released to relatives or other sponsors as of the end of June, the most recent statistics at the county level show. The New York metropolitan area, including parts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, had absorbed the most resettled children in the country this year for the same period.
In addition, the number of parents or guardians traveling with a child or children who were apprehended at the border — classified as “family units” in federal data — doubled last year’s total as of July 31. Only national figures are available for that category.
The renewed influx comes in a highly charged political atmosphere, with illegal immigration proving a prominent and volatile issue in the presidential election.
This is the fifth year of an exodus of minors leaving Central America amid violent crime and extreme poverty in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, a migratory pattern that reached its peak in 2014. The Obama administration’s response to thwart smuggling, speed up court proceedings and collaborate with countries south of the border appeared to have an effect in the 2015 fiscal year, but the trend lines are moving up once more.
More than 1,800 unaccompanied minors have come to Long Island from Oct. 1 through June 30, the figures show — surpassing the 1,123 who came during the entire 2015 fiscal year but significantly below the 3,046 of 2014.
Separately, border patrol agents have captured more than 58,000 people in family units from Oct. 1 through July, many of them from the nations feeding the unaccompanied children’s migration. Those statistics aren’t broken down by state or locality, but the backlog of related immigration court filings for women with children in New York was 6,360 cases in July, with 1,731 of those petitions initiated this year, according to The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse’s Immigration Project, a data research organization at Syracuse University.
Factors driving migration
The migration from Central America can be expected to continue as long as the conditions driving it remain in the countries of origin, said Faye Hipsman, a San Francisco-based policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that studies the movement of people across borders.
There isn’t one reason the children are coming, Hipsman and other experts said. It’s gang violence and crime. It’s kids seeking to join relatives here. It’s the prospect of building better lives in the United States. It’s the rocky history of those nations.
“The different push-and-pull factors creating this migration are still there,” Hipsman said. “There’s still high levels of violence that haven’t gotten better. . . . These binational families want to be together; these family reunification desires still exist.”
Economic issues afflict the large poor populations in those countries, Hipsman noted. “Because of the root causes, these flows are looking like an enduring phenomenon,” she said.
In local communities, school districts — with a legal mandate to educate children ages 5 to 21, regardless of immigration status — often are the first to feel the migration’s impact as parents and sponsors seek to enroll minors. But funds to provide the services they need lag behind or don’t match the costs, school officials said. The immigrant students, some who come with interrupted education, usually need English-language classes and other programs to catch up.
Freeport Superintendent Kishore Kuncham said his district now has more than 100 students who came as unaccompanied minors and “we will continue to be concerned . . . because of the lack of funding either from the state or federal government” as districts operate to keep spending down under the property tax cap.
In past years, many of the recently arrived children did not report to school until at or after the beginning of classes in late August or early September, so administrators have not known what to expect. Systems on the Island that have enrolled unaccompanied minors, in addition to Freeport, include Brentwood, Central Islip, Glen Cove, Hempstead, Huntington, Riverhead and Westbury, along with districts on the East End.
Candidates sharply differ
Both major party candidates in the presidential race have weighed in on the issue, discussing immigration policies during debates and speeches.
Republican Donald Trump has made sealing the southern border one of his main issues, vowing that the Mexican government will pay for building a wall. He brought up recent migrants during his nomination speech at the Republican National Convention as he criticized “open borders.”
“The number of new illegal immigrant families who have crossed the border so far this year already exceeds the entire total from 2015,” Trump said. “They are being released by the tens of thousands into our communities with no regard for the impact on public safety or resources.”
Democrat Hillary Clinton initially said the children should be sent back, but later stated that minors need legal counsel to have their petitions heard. Clinton has promised, as her campaign website states, to “end family detention for parents and children who arrive at our border in desperate situations.” She has pledged to introduce comprehensive immigration reform, which could benefit those in the country.
The administration of President Barack Obama has stressed the multiple steps it is taking to discourage potential migrants from undertaking a journey that breaks the law and is fraught with danger, while encouraging those who qualify to pursue a legal avenue for children whose parents are designated as “lawfully present” in the United States.
“The Department of Homeland Security and its federal government partners continue to closely monitor current migration trends and are working aggressively to address underlying cases and deter unauthorized migration, while ensuring that those with legitimate humanitarian claims are afforded the opportunity to seek protection,” the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s latest statistical bulletin said.
It’s clear, though, that many aren’t waiting for a lengthy application process and that others who are out of options for admission are coming illegally.
The situation is dire for the children and families risking it all, said Long Island immigrant advocate Patrick Young, program director of the Central American Refugee Center, a nonprofit with offices in Hempstead and Brentwood. The group’s attorneys have been trying to secure guardianships in family courts and representing immigrant youngsters before immigration judges.
“We have not seen an improvement in the security situation in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras,” Young said.
Young blames “drug wars” from the trade to move illegal drugs to the United States for much of the instability in Central America, “and the U.S. is involved in the supply and the demand side of the drug and gun trade and the children end up caught in the middle.”
Proponents of immigration enforcement, however, put the onus on Obama for not being more aggressive in deporting children and their parents.
‘Incentive’ to enter U.S.
Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies, a group in Washington, D.C., that backs strict enforcement, said the administration is allowing children who are intentionally smuggled to have protections intended for trafficking victims and letting many file asylum petitions.
“The reason the numbers are up is because people in Central America still understand that if they get here they will be allowed to stay. That policy has not changed,” Vaughan said. “Smugglers know it, the families know, and there still is this huge incentive for people to try to make it here.”
In the last three years alone, more than 6,000 unaccompanied minors have moved to the Island — home to a large immigrant population from El Salvador and growing pockets of Guatemalans and Hondurans.
School systems that see this new student population in their classrooms have had to adjust. Hempstead and Westbury, for instance, are among 23 school districts in New York under monitoring by the state attorney general’s office, after the state investigated complaints that immigrant minors were encountering problems when they tried to register.
The districts agreed to improve enrollment procedures for those students, but leaders in the communities have voiced concerns about costs.
“It’s really chain migration that we are seeing,” said Pless Dickerson, a Westbury school board member, saying his views are his personal opinion and do not represent the district. “We are not blaming the population, the kids” for the financial burden, he added.
“Even if we had the resources to hire additional staff to work with kids, in our case, where are we going to put them?” Dickerson said. “We don’t have the classrooms and the facilities are maxed out . . . Where is the funding to help districts do this?”
Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), who represents a district where many immigrants reside, teamed up with Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) in 2014 to introduce a bill seeking federal reimbursement of student costs for districts educating immigrant minors.
King said the proposal hasn’t garnered support, and the only other co-sponsor is another Long Islander, Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City). The migration of those minors does not affect many other parts of the country, because large metro areas like New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Houston and Miami are receiving the bulk of the children.
“This is really a shame that it’s something that hasn’t been addressed,” King said. “Maybe a new administration coming in will realize how significant this is.”
Lars Clemensen, the Hampton Bays school superintendent, said he hopes the case for federal funding continues to be made so that schools with significant immigrant populations can fulfill their mission of educating all children — without draining other programs.
“My great concern is that we would have to rob Peter to pay Paul,” Clemensen said. “I want to make sure I can offer Advanced Placement chemistry and a bilingual learning environment . . . We need advocacy at the federal level because, while there is gridlock in what to do and how to address this international issue, the bottom of the hill is the school district.”