“The system makes it hard for them:” Exploring the challenges and strategies for schools in supporting newcomer unaccompanied immigrant youth
Newcomer unaccompanied youth in the U.S.
The United States defines an unaccompanied minor as an immigrant who is under the age of 18 and not in the care of a parent or legal guardian at the time of entry, who is left unaccompanied after entry, and who does not have a family member or legal guardian willing or able to care for them in the arrival country. Unaccompanied minors1, or “newcomer youth,” are part of a large global migrant group that are settling in the U.S. due to high rates of violent crime, gang violence and recruitment, and severe economic insecurity in their home countries (Zak, 2020).
Upon arrival in the U.S., unaccompanied minors face strict and often inhumane policies, mistreatment, deplorable conditions, and procedures designed to keep as many of them in custody as possible. Currently, 8,500 migrant teens and children who crossed the border without their parents are being housed in Department of Health and Human Services shelters, with 87% of those in custody between the ages of 13-17 (Levinson, 2020; Miroff, 2021).
For unaccompanied immigrant youth who eventually settle in the U.S., barriers to integration persist, including inadequate support for navigating complex immigration and K-12 education systems, as well as a legal system that in which unaccompanied minors have no right to legal counsel, even when facing deportation. For the schools and districts that serve these students, a lack of federal financial assistance and a reliance on ad hoc local support systems only deepen existing obstacles.
The Educational Challenge(s)
In our study, we are exploring how school and district personnel describe and manage the challenges that newcomers face upon entering the U.S. Additionally, we are examining the challenges that schools and districts encounter when welcoming these students. These include:
- enrollment and registration processes, including complicated registration systems and language barriers,
- lack of personnel to manage the enrollment process and a lack of background knowledge about working with newcomer immigrants, and
- fear of immigration enforcement in local communities that necessitate trauma-informed approaches to serving these students.
Challenge 1: School Enrollment Systems and Processes
To enroll in a public school in the U.S., families must first provide multiple documents and navigate complicated systems. For unaccompanied newcomers, providing documentation such as proof of residence in the school district, a birth certificate, and vaccination records can be a considerable obstacle. Some districts in the U.S. have made the decision at the state level to not require documentation, with one district official explaining,
Another respondent echoed the difficulty of registering students who were detained on arrival in the U.S.:
This practice of “connecting the dots” is necessitated by the complicated nature of the immigration system and the seemingly arbitrary requirements for enrolling in school. Students and families, for their part, also face challenges with the initial steps of school enrollment. Across school districts, the research shows similar dynamics related to the difficulty of online registration systems. As respondents noted:
Challenge 2: Personnel Shortages
While all children, regardless of immigration status, have a right to a public education, personnel decisions at the district level can contribute to difficulties exercising this right. For instance, insufficient staffing means inadequate capacity to assist the high volume of students and families looking to register and enroll:
Research shows that additional, preferably bilingual, educators and staff are also needed to ensure that newcomer unaccompanied youth receive the assistance they need. One school counselor said:
Challenge 3: Anti-immigrant sentiment and a climate of fear and the need for trauma-informed approaches
While our respondents—social workers, counselors, and staff who primarily interact with immigrant students—were more aware of the needs of immigrant students and families than indicated in prior research, there is still a strong need to educate district and school personnel about migration experiences and to engage in trauma-informed, asset-based perspectives of immigrants.
For example, one respondent recalled serious anti-immigration opposition from members of the community and the county—specifically educators within her school—when she advocated for a structured support system in a separate school to best meet the needs of immigrant students.
Another participant commented:
The reality is that newcomers face unimaginable conditions and experiences before, during, and after migration, which remain part of their everyday lives. One participant commented:
Nearly all of the participants in this project discussed newcomers’ trauma, which is often ongoing because of the anti-immigrant climate in schools and communities and the constant threat of deportation and surveillance. To summarize, one participant in schools said,
Conclusion: Policy recommendations for districts
Any policy to improve outcomes for unaccompanied newcomer minors must address the considerable obstacles these youth encounter before and after migrating to the U.S.
Findings across a national sample of school personnel and a deeper case study of district personnel in one state consistently point to three areas as requiring critical attention: 1) improving registration and enrollment processes, including providing multilingual support; 2) hiring culturally aware and responsive personnel with for both classroom and support roles; and 3) improving the climate toward immigrants within spheres of control.
Working toward these priorities might involve strategies such as developing asset-based programs and systems to support immigrant families and providing professional development and knowledge-sharing opportunities for all school personnel to improve awareness about the needs of immigrant students and their families. Meanwhile, critical school personnel— not just one social worker or counselor—ought to receive trainings on immigration policy, enforcement practices, and the trauma experienced by many immigrant students and their families. In addition, staff must collaborate to advocate rather than engage in ad hoc or individual efforts. With a better understanding and appreciation for the experiences unaccompanied minors have overcome and the obstacles that remain, educators and school administrators can do more to develop trust, establish avenues of communication, improve access to community resources, and strengthen trust with immigrant families.