The number of unaccompanied minors coming illegally to the United States from Central America has plunged since last year, with the number of resettled children dropping about 67 percent with two months to go in the 2015 federal fiscal year, according to figures from the agencies that track detentions and resettlement of the youths.
The U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement reported that 17,439 children had been placed with relatives and sponsors across the country from Oct. 1 through the end of July.
That follows a peak of 53,518 children from Central America resettled in the U.S. during the 2014 federal fiscal year, which ran from Oct. 1, 2013, through Sept. 30, 2014.
The decline, sharper than migration experts predicted, likely means a lessening of the impact on Long Island and other areas across the country where such children have been placed with relatives or sponsors.
Nassau and Suffolk counties -- one of the top destinations in the nation last year for the resettled children -- received 627 unaccompanied minors from October through May, the latest month for which county figures were available. That is compared with more than 3,000 arrivals to this region in the 2014 fiscal year.
Most of the youths under 18 continue to come from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, fleeing poverty and violence in their home countries. While this year's overall number of child migrants is far lower, the figure remains higher than any fiscal year other than 2014.
Last fall, school districts such as Hempstead, Brentwood, Central Islip and Freeport saw their enrollments rise because of the influx of the minors. The larger enrollment triggered a crisis in Hempstead, where activists joined parents and children in complaining that immigrant children had been turned away from schools. The district's enrollment practices were placed under state monitoring after an attorney general's investigation.
Stepped-up immigration enforcement in Mexico has made a difference in countering the migration trend, said Marc Rosenblum, deputy director of the U.S. immigration program for the Migration Policy Institute, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that studies international migration and governmental policies put in place to manage it.
"The numbers are on pace to be less than half than the number that arrived last year," Rosenblum said.
Rosenblum's projections, issued in the spring, anticipated about 39,000 kids would cross the border illegally this year, more than twice the number that have arrived so far.
"The numbers of apprehensions in Mexico are way up," he said, as that country -- in its own accounting -- is intercepting, detaining and deporting many more kids en route to the U.S. in this fiscal year.
A June 21 bulletin by Mexico's Instituto Nacional de Migración, that country's migration agency, said it had "rescued" 11,893 children and adolescents mostly from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador since January -- among them unaccompanied minors and others traveling with a relative. The Mexican government's bulletin said it had sheltered those children to eventually hand them over "to the migration authorities of their countries of origin" and reunite them with their families.
The Mexican migration institute said it is responding to "the increase in the migratory influx of children and adolescents" that had spiked since 2013, with the agency affirming its "commitment to protect and safeguard the foreign minors that enter and transit the country."
Marcela Celorio, the Manhattan-based deputy consul general with the Consulate General of Mexico in New York, said in a statement that the Mexican government set up a protocol in April 2014, in collaboration with UNICEF, to respond to the migration of unaccompanied minors "in a responsible, efficient and humane manner."
The protocol has detailed instructions on how to conduct careful interviews with detained children to identify the risks they face and any protection they may need, she said.
The Obama administration did not give any official explanation for the reduced migration levels, despite repeated requests for comment to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and its branch agencies on the matter -- the Office of Refugee Resettlement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
However, U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics showed a large decline in the number of unaccompanied minors crossing the United States' border with Mexico in the current fiscal year, compared with 2014. The agency reported that border patrol agents had encountered 30,409 as of July 31, compared with 67,339 in the full 2014 fiscal year.
Steven Camarota, research director of the Center for Immigration Studies, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., that backs reduced immigration levels and more restrictive policies, said the numbers show the Mexican government "really sent a lot of people back" this year. That, he said, allows the U.S. government to avoid or postpone "a difficult policy discussion" on how to address the smuggling of children.
Patrick Young, program director of the Central American Refugee Center, a nonprofit in Hempstead and Brentwood, said he also noticed that the migration "is not happening at the same level now," as reflected in the number of children who have arrived seeking help. The refugee center works to provide legal guidance to unaccompanied minors who are resettled in the region.
Schools helping kids
He said school districts, nonprofit groups and other institutions are still assisting the children who arrived last year -- boys and girls ranging from infants to high-school age needing legal representation, schooling in their language and, in some cases, counseling to deal with emotional traumas.
"On the one hand, there are children still coming, but they are in much smaller numbers, and at the same time we are still working with a lot of the children who came a year ago," Young said.
Local school districts, some of which had to scramble to accommodate the youths last year, "are not going to see a repeat in terms of numbers" who sought to enroll last year, Young said, "but the kids who came are still here, and their immigration cases are not going to be resolved until late 2016."
Camarota noted that while the numbers of minors crossing the border may be down, they "are still higher than in any other year, except last year," when they peaked.
He said the U.S. policy of resettling those children functions as an incentive, despite enforcement deterrents along the way.
"It seems to me the thing to do is to fly people back immediately and start an asylum process back in their home countries," Camarota said. Otherwise, he said, Americans "have to send their kids to overcrowded schools or face job competition and all the other consequences" of high immigration.
Rosenblum said Mexico is motivated to control the flow of children for its own reasons, but it's not clear how long the government there will fund that effort.
"Mexico has similar issues with children making demands on services, and whatever the nexus is with those children passing through with smugglers and the children being the victims of crime," he said.
The Obama administration has vowed to fight smuggling, while at the same time opening a new path to accept some of those minors who are at risk of harm and who have parents lawfully present in the U.S. as refugees or parole recipients.
Under a new federal program, hundreds of immigrant parents on Long Island have been applying for their children to come legally from Central America to the U.S. A quota of up to 4,000 refugees seeking legal entry was set for Latin America in the current fiscal year.
Margie McHugh, director of the National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy, also at the Migration Policy Institute, said the slowdown in children's migration could be an opportunity to craft programs to address children already here.
Many who came without sufficient formal instruction are enrolled in test-driven high school programs that leave them behind or drive them to pursue oversubscribed adult education classes, she said.
"At a minimum, this is breathing room for a lot of school districts," McHugh said. "This is a year that the kids have settled in, and that the numbers are not as high as they were, that districts should be able to be sorting through the different types of needs that these kids have and matching them with programs."
In Central Islip, school board president Norman A. Wagner said the district's "enrollment projection increase is less than in previous years" but the administration did not have a breakdown for how many could have arrived as unaccompanied minors. The district, Wagner said in a statement, remains "committed to educating all of our students."
Freeport schools superintendent Kishore Kuncham said his district has registered only one child this summer who was identified as an unaccompanied minor, compared with about 80 such newly arrived students in the last school year.
He said Freeport is also committed to educating all its children, but said taxpayers have been left to cope with the cost of educating the minors.
The Freeport schools received about $25,000 in federal funds set aside for districts affected by increased immigrant enrollment, he said, slightly more than the $20,688 average that the district spent for one pupil in 2013. Meanwhile, the superintendent estimated the district spent "close to half a million" in additional staff and support for those students in 2014-15.
"Some funding has come in after many months of struggle, but it's been like a drop in the bucket," Kuncham said. "It's an ongoing matter for the district, and it's really a federal issue that the local residents are paying for."