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How The U.S. Created The Central American Migration Crisis

It’s hard to believe that more than four years have passed since the police shot Amílcar Pérez-López a few blocks from my house in San Francisco’s Mission District. He was an immigrant, 20 years old, and his remittances were the sole support for his mother and siblings in Guatemala. On February 26, 2015, two undercover police officers shot him six times in the back, although they would claim he’d been running toward them with an upraised butcher knife.

For two years, members of my little Episcopal church joined other neighbors in a weekly evening vigil outside the Mission police station, demanding that the district attorney bring charges against the men who killed Amílcar. When the medical examiner’s office continued to drag its feet on releasing its report, we helped arrange for a private autopsy, which revealed what witnesses had already reported — that he had indeed been running away from those officers when they shot him. In the end, the San Francisco district attorney declined to prosecute the police for the killing, although the city did reach a financial settlement with his family back in Guatemala.

Still, this isn’t really an article about Amílcar, but about why he — like so many hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans, Hondurans, and El Salvadorans in similar situations — was in the United States in the first place. It’s about what drove 225,570 of them to be apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol in 2018 and 132,887 of them to be picked up at or near the border in a single month — May — of this year. As Dara Lind observed at Vox, “This isn’t a manufactured crisis, or a politically engineered one, as some Democrats and progressives have argued.”

It is indeed a real crisis, not something the Trump administration simply cooked up to justify building the president’s wall. But it is also absolutely a manufactured crisis, one that should be stamped with the label “made in the U.S.A.” thanks to decades of Washington’s interventions in Central American affairs. Its origins go back at least to 1954 when the CIA overthrew the elected Guatemalan government of Jacobo Arbenz. In the 1960s, dictatorships would flourish in that country (and elsewhere in the region) with U.S. economic and military backing.

When, in the 1970s and 1980s, Central Americans began to rise up in response, Washington’s support for right-wing military regimes and death squads, in Honduras and El Salvador in particular, drove thousands of the inhabitants of those countries to migrate here, where their children were recruited into the very U.S. gangs now devastating their countries. In Guatemala, the U.S. supported successive regimes in genocidal wars on its indigenous Mayan majority. To top it off, climate change, which the United States has done the most of any nation to cause (and perhaps the least to forestall or mitigate), has made subsistence agriculture increasingly difficult to sustain in many parts of Central America.

U.S. Actions Have Central American Consequences

Scholars who study migration speak of two key explanations for why human beings leave their homes and migrate: “pull” and “push” factors. Pull factors would include the attractions of a new place, like economic and educational opportunities, religious and political liberties, and the presence there of family, friends, or community members from back home. Push factors driving people from their homes would include war; the drug trade; political, communal, or sexual violence; famine and drought; environmental degradation and climate change; and ordinary, soul-eating poverty.

International law mandates that some, but not all, push factors can confer “refugee” status on migrants, entitling them to seek asylum in other countries. This area of humanitarian law dates from the end of World War II, a time when millions of Europeans were displaced, forcing the world to adjust to huge flows of humanity. The 1951 Geneva Convention defines a refugee as anyone who has

“a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…”

Almost three-quarters of a century later, that legal definition still theoretically underlies U.S. policy toward refugees, but this country has always welcomed some refugees and not others. In the 1980s, for instance, Salvadorans fleeing U.S.-supported death squads had almost no hope of getting asylum here. On the other hand, people leaving the communist island of Cuba had only to put a foot on U.S. territory to receive almost automatic asylum.

Because of its origins in post-war Europe, asylum law has a blind spot when it comes to a number of forces now pushing people to leave their homes. It’s unfortunate that international law makes a distinction, for instance, between people who become refugees because of physical violence and those who do so because of economic violence. A well-founded fear of being shot, beaten, or raped may get you asylum. Actual starvation won’t.

Today, a number of push factors are driving Central Americans from their homes, especially (once again) in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Key among them are political corruption and repression, the power of the drug cartels, and climate change — all factors that, in significant ways, can be traced back to actions of the United States.

According to World Bank figures, in 2016 (the latest year available), El Salvador had the highest murder rate in the world, 83 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. Honduras took second place with 57 per 100,000, while tenth place went to Guatemala, with 27. Mexico wasn’t far behind with 19. (By comparison, with 5.3 per 100,000, the United States was far down the list.)

By any measure, the three Central American nations of what’s sometimes called “the Northern Triangle” are dangerous places to live. Here’s why.

Political repression and violent corruption: Honduras, for example, has long been one of Central America’s poorest and economically most unequal countries. In the 1980s, the United States supported a military-run government there that routinely “disappeared” and tortured its opponents, while the CIA used the country as a training ground for the Contras it backed, who were then fighting the Sandinistas across the border in Nicaragua (who had recently deposed their own U.S.-backed dictator).

By the turn of this century, however, things were changing in Honduras. In 2006, José Manuel Zelaya became president. Although he’d run on a conservative platform, he promptly launched a program of economic and political reforms. These included free public education, an increased minimum wage, low-interest loans for small farmers, the inclusion of domestic workers in the social security system, and a number of important environmental regulations.

In 2009, however, a military coup deposed Zelaya, installing Porfirio Lobo in his place. Four of the six officers who staged the coup were graduates of the U.S.’s notorious School of the Americas, where for decades Latin American military officers and police were trained in the ways of repression and torture.

Washington may not have initiated the coup, but within days Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had given it her seal of approval, supporting that power grab in defiance of the Organization of American States. Since then, murder rates have skyrocketed, while corruption and drug trafficking have flourished as the drug cartels and local governing bodies, as well as the national government, melded into a single countrywide nightmare. In a recent New York Times report, for instance, Sonia Nazario detailed what this has meant just for public transportation where anyone who operates a taxi or a bus must pay a daily tax (double on special days like Christmas) amounting to 30% to 40% of the driver’s income. But this isn’t a government tax. It goes to MS-13, the 18th Street gang (both of which arose in the United States), or sometimes both. The alternative, as Nazario reports, is death:

“Since 2010, more than 1,500 Hondurans working in transportation have been murdered — shot, strangled, cuffed to the steering wheel and burned alive while their buses are torched. If anyone on a bus route stops paying, gangs kill a driver — any driver — to send a message.”

The police, despite having all the facts, do next to no­thing. Violence and corruption have only become more intense under Honduras’s current president, Juan Orlando Hernández, who returned to office in what was probably a stolen election in 2017. Although the Organization of American States called for a redo, the Trump administration hastily recognizedHernández and life in Honduras continued on its murderous course.

The drug business: Along with coups and Coca-Cola, Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, is another U.S. import to Central America. Although Donald Trump likes to cast most refugees as dark and dangerous gang members from south of the border, MS-13 had its roots in Los Angeles, California, among Salvadorans who had fled the U.S.-backed dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s. When young people who grew up in Los Angeles returned to El Salvador at the end of that country’s civil war, MS-13 went with them. What had begun as a neighborhood street gang created to protect Salvadoran youth from other gangs in that city has now grown into a vast criminal enterprise of its own — as has the 18th Street gang, or Calle 18, which also came out of Los Angeles, following a similar path.

Without a major market for their product, drug cartels would have vastly less power. And we all know where that market lies: right here in the United States. Fifty years of this country’s “war on drugs” turn out to have provided the perfect breeding ground for violent outlaw drug cartels, while filling our own jails and prisons with more inmates than any other country holds. Yet it has done next to nothing to stanch addiction in this country. These days, if they remain in their own lands, many young people in the Northern Triangle face a stark choice between joining a gang and death. Not surprisingly, some of them opt to risk the trip to the U.S. instead. Many could have stayed home if it weren’t for the drug market in this country.

Climate Change and Environmental Degradation: Even if there were no corrupt regimes, no government repression, and no drug wars, people would still be fleeing Central America because climate change has made their way of life impossible. As what the New York Times calls the biggest carbon polluter in history, the United States bears much of the responsibility for crop failures there. The Northern Triangle has long been subject to periods of drought and flooding as part of a natural alternation of the El Niño and La Niña phenomena in the Pacific Ocean. But climate change has prolonged and deepened those periods of drought, forcing many peasants to abandon their subsistence farms. Some in Guatemala are now facing not just economic hardship but actual starvation thanks to a heating planet.

All along a drought corridor that runs from Nicaragua through Guatemala, the problem is a simple lack of water. The Guardian’s Nina Lakhani reports that, in El Salvador, many people now spend their days in search of enough water to keep their families alive. Even where (unsafe) river water is available, the price — in money or sex — extracted by the gangs for using it is often too high for most women to pay, so they are forced to rely on distant municipal taps (if they even exist). While El Salvadorans live with strict water rationing, the U.S.-based multinational Coca Cola remains immune to such rules. That company continues to take all the water it needs to produce and sell its fizzy concoction locally, while pouring foul-smelling effluvia into nearby rivers.

In Honduras, on the other hand, the problem is often too much water, as rising sea levels eat away at both its Atlantic and Pacific coasts, devouring poor people’s homes and small businesses in the process. Here, too, a human-fueled problem is exacerbated by greed in the form of shrimp farming, which decimates coastal mangrove trees that normally help to keep those lands from eroding. Shrimp, the most popular seafood in the United States, comes mostly from Southeast Asia and — you guessed it — Central America. Whether it’s shrimp or drugs, the point is that U.S. desires continue to drive devastation in Central America.

As the Trump administration does everything it can to accelerate and deepen the climate crisis, Central Americans are literally dying from it. Under international law, however, if they head for the U.S. in an attempt to save their lives and livelihoods, they don’t qualify as refugees because they are fleeing not physical but economic violence and so are not eligible for asylum.

No Asylum for You

These days, even immigrants with a well-founded fear of persecution who perfectly fit the Geneva Convention’s definition of “refugee” may no longer get asylum here. The Trump administration doesn’t even want to offer them a chance to apply for it. The president has, of course, called such groups of migrants, traveling together for safety and solidarity, an “invasion” of “very bad people.” And his administration continues to take a variety of concrete steps to prevent non-white refugees of just about any sort from reaching U.S. territory to make such a claim.

His early efforts to deter asylum seekers involved the infamous family-separation policy, in which children who arrived at the border were taken from their parents in an effort to create the sort of publicity that would keep others from coming. An international outcry — and a federal court order — brought an official end to that policy in June 2018. At the time, the government was ordered to return such children to their parents.

As it happened, the Department of Homeland Security proved largely incapable of doing so, because quite often it hadn’t kept decent records of the parents’ names or locations. In response to an ACLU lawsuit listing 2,700 individual children living without their families in this country, the administration acknowledged that, in addition to named children, thousands more fell into that category, lost in what can only laughingly be called “the system.”

You might think that, if the goal were to keep people from leaving their homes in the first place, the Trump administration would do what it could to improve life in the Northern Triangle. If so, however, you would be wrong. Far from increasing humanitarian aid to El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, the administration promptly slashed those funds, ensuring yet more misery and undoubtedly forcing yet more to flee Central America.

Its most recent ploy: to require refugees to apply for asylum in the first country they come to after leaving their own. Because Guatemala lies between Mexico and the rest of the Northern Triangle, that means Salvadorans and Hondurans will officially have to apply there first. President Trump even used the threat of new tariffs against Guatemalan goods to negotiate such an agreement with that country’s outgoing president Jimmy Morales to secretly designate his nation a “safe third country” where migrants could apply for asylum.

There is something more than a little ironic in this, given that the Guatemalan government can’t even offer its own people anything like safety. Significant numbers of them have, of course, been fleeing to Mexico and heading for the U.S. border. Trump’s solution to that problem has been to use the threat of tariffs to force Mexico to militarize its own border with Guatemala, in the process frustrating the new administration of President Andres Manuel López Obrador.

On August 1st, a federal judge in San Francisco issued an injunction against that “safe third country” policy, prohibiting its use for the time being. For now (at least theoretically), migrants from the Northern Triangle should still be able to apply for asylum in the U.S. The administration will certainly fight the injunction in the courts while doing everything in its power to stop those immigrants in any way it can.

Meanwhile, it has come up with yet another way to prevent people from claiming asylum. Historically, family members of those persecuted in their own countries have been eligible to apply, too. At the end of July, Attorney General William Barr announced that “immigrants fearing persecution because of threats against their family members are no longer eligible for asylum.” This is particularly cruel because, to extort cooperation from their targets, drug gangs routinely make — and carry out — threats of rape and murder against family members.

A Real Crisis

There is indeed a real crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. Hundreds of thousands of people like Amílcar are arriving there seeking refuge from dangers that were, to a significant degree, created by and are now being intensified by the United States. But Donald Trump would rather demonize desperate people than deploy the resources needed to attend to their claims in a timely way — or in any way at all.

It’s time to recognize that the American way of life — our cars and comforts, our shrimp and coffee, our ignorance about our government’s actions in our regional “backyard” — has created this crisis. It should be (but in the age of Trump won’t be) our responsibility to solve it.


Rebecca Gordon, a TomDispatch regular, teaches at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes. Her previous books include Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post-9/11 United States and Letters from Nicaragua.

Copyright 2019 Rebecca Gordon

Border Patrol Agents Circulate ‘Challenge Coin’ Mocking Care for Migrant Kids

An unofficial commemorative coin has been circulating among Border Patrol agents at the U.S./Mexico border, mocking the task of caring for migrant children and other duties that have fallen to agents as families cross into the U.S.

On the front, the coin declares “KEEP THE CARAVANS COMING” under an image of a massive parade of people carrying a Honduran flag — a caricature of the “caravan” from last fall, which started in Honduras and attracted thousands of people as it moved north. (While the caravan included many women and children, the only visible figures on the coin appear to be adult men.)

The coin’s reverse side features the Border Patrol logo and three illustrations: a Border Patrol agent bottle-feeding an infant; an agent fingerprinting a teen boy wearing a backwards baseball cap; and a U.S. Border Patrol van. The text along the edge reads “FEEDING ** PROCESSING ** HOSPITAL ** TRANSPORT.”

The coin appears to poke fun at the fact that many border agents are no longer out patrolling and instead are now caring for and processing migrants — including families and children.

Government officials told ProPublica the coin was not approved or paid for by the government, unlike official “challenge coins” that go through an agency approval process. One Customs and Border Protection official, who was not authorized to give his name, characterized the coin as “something that somebody’s doing on their free time” — comparing it to woodworking. “A lot of the agents have little hobbies on the side, they build little wooden figures that they have at their homes,” the official said.

It’s not clear who created the coin or how widely it’s been circulated among border agents. But Border Patrol agents in California and Texas — on opposite ends of the U.S./Mexico border — had seen the coin circulated at their workplaces. One of the agents received a coin in April when a colleague brought several to pass around at the office; the other was shown an online order form for the coins by a colleague at work.

Both said the coins were promoted via the secret Facebook group for current and former Border Patrol officials that, as ProPublica recently detailed, included racist and violent posts.

The coin is part of a tradition of unofficial “challenge coins” — which generally outnumber official ones — which are common in the military and law enforcement as a way for members to celebrate achievements and build camaraderie.

But outside observers found this particular coin anything but harmless.

Theresa Cardinal Brown, who worked at CBP under the Bush and Obama administrations, said that the coin was evidence (like the 10-15 Facebook group) of “reflexive dehumanization” by Border Patrol agents, and that the “tolerance for shenanigans” by supervisors and leadership had gone too far. “You have to say, ‘This is affecting the integrity and authority of us all.’”

The coin appears to have been designed, ordered and distributed months into the surge of Central American families at the border. Coins were being distributed to agents by late April, before the current wave of public attention and outrage over conditions for migrants in Border Patrol custody.

Customs and Border Protection officials said they did not know about the coin until contacted by ProPublica. They said they would investigate it for potential trademark violation since the coin includes the Border Patrol’s logo.

“U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has a firm policy on the use and production of challenge coins bearing CBP identifiers,” a CBP official said, including the U,S. Border Patrol logo. “The coin in question is not an officially approved CBP coin. CBP intends to investigate the matter and will make a determination when all the facts are known.”

However, officials implied that if the coin had not used the official logo, it would be beyond their control. “If it’s something that somebody’s doing on their free time,” said the official who asked not to be named, it is not something the agency can control.

Hector Garza of the National Border Patrol Council, the union representing Border Patrol agents, said he had not seen the coin either. When shown pictures of it by ProPublica, and in response to follow-up questions, he said, “I have no thoughts about the coin.”

Challenge coins have spread throughout the federal government, but are especially popular within Border Patrol. They depict individual offices or stations or particular missions. If official visitors come by to tour a station, a coin may be presented.

In this case, the “mission” being mockingly commemorated is the unprecedented amount of migrant care and processing Border Patrol agents did in the spring of this year.

Taking care of migrants (including children) in short-term custody is part of the Border Patrol’s job. When the intake system for migrant children is overwhelmed, as it was in 2014 and has been again in 2019, Border Patrol often holds children for longer than the 72 hours prescribed by the federal Flores settlement (a court agreement that governs the treatment of children in immigration custody), often in spaces not designed for children — or anyone. In recent weeks the government has greatly reduced the number of children in Border Patrol custody, thanks in large part to funding from Congress that expanded the intake system’s capacity.

Some agents say that childcare and support have an opportunity cost: Any time an agent spends driving a van full of children to a child-only facility, for example, is time not spent “in the field” apprehending people who are trying to get away.

“Us caring for kids and families, that’s not the frustration,” Garza said. “Drugs coming into the country? That is a frustration. People with criminal records coming in and us not being able to catch them? That is a frustration.”

That tradeoff appears to be fueling the emotions expressed by the coin — with the back side depicting the tasks that agents must do instead of being out “on the line,” and the front side referring to the legal “loopholes” that make it harder to detain and deport migrants under 18 and families.

One Border Patrol agent, when asked about morale among agents detailed to care and transport, replied with a photo of a dumpster floating down a flooded river.



Family Takes In Guatemalan Teen Who Crossed Border

By Jeremy Redmon, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

CEDARTOWN, Ga. — It didn’t take Shad and Connie Ayers long to decide Alex Gomez Carrillo should join their family.

The couple spent a few days determining they had enough income to support the 17-year-old Guatemalan along with their two children. They could convert their unused dining room into a bedroom for him. Above all, they decided taking in Alex was the right thing to do.

Alex is among tens of thousands of Central American children and teens who have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border without their parents since last year. Many say they are fleeing deprivation and gang violence in their native countries.

The surge of juveniles has prompted angry protests across the country. Saying the children would be a burden on taxpayers, U.S. flag-waving demonstrators in Murrieta, California blocked busloads of the children and their parents from entering their town in July. That same month, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal fired off a blistering letter to President Barack Obama about the hundreds of immigrant children and teens who have been placed in the care of sponsors in Georgia this year. Deal told Obama that Georgia has received a “disproportionate number of refugee placements over the past few years.”

In contrast, the Ayerses have welcomed Alex with open arms. Their Baptist faith and their immigrant ancestry — her forebears migrated to the United States from Mexico and he is the descendant of Irish immigrants — also figured in their decision to welcome Alex. Connie Ayers thought to herself: “What if I was in that situation and I needed help, would there be somebody there to help me?”

Ayers is now seeking in court to become the teenager’s guardian, which could allow him to obtain legal status here.

“I can’t sit back and watch someone suffer or be sent to a place where they are going to be hurt when I can do something about it,” said Ayers, who was born in Texas and grew up, like her husband, a few hundred miles north of the Mexican border.

Alex said the Ayerses have quickly become his family.

“Connie treats me like I am her son,” he said in Spanish with Connie Ayers translating for him. “I have shoes. I have clothes. I have everything … not like in Guatemala. It’s a different life.”

Connie Ayers first met Alex while attending a local church during the summer of last year. Alex told her he grew up in poverty in Guatemala, living with eight other siblings in an adobe house with dirt floors and no indoor plumbing. Food and clothing were scarce. He started working as a young boy, selling candy and ice cream to help support his family while missing years of education. He described a troubled relationship with his father. And he said a local gang member threatened to kill him.

Fearing for his life, Alex set off for America in May of last year, paying coyotes — or smugglers — to help him along the way. He traveled with a group of strangers by car across Guatemala and then set off on foot at the Mexican border. At times, the coyotes concealed him in a barrel and in a refrigerator. In all, it took him more than two weeks to finally cross the Rio Grande.

Federal immigration authorities apprehended him on the other side of the river. They put him in deportation proceedings before releasing him last year to the care of an older brother, who is also living without legal status in Cedartown.

So far this fiscal year, authorities have apprehended 66,127 unaccompanied children and teens like Alex on the southwest border, or nearly twice the number arrested by the same time last fiscal year. The surge of children has jammed immigration court dockets and prompted Obama to ask Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency funding to respond to the crisis. Congressional Republicans have pushed for a lower figure.

After befriending Alex, Connie Ayers drove him to his deportation hearing in downtown Atlanta in the summer of last year.

The judge scheduled a new hearing for Alex so he could find a lawyer. Ayers quickly found Rocky Rawcliffe, a local immigration attorney. Rawcliffe persuaded the judge to continue Alex’s deportation case until April while the teen seeks relief from deportation.

Meanwhile, with the help of another attorney, Tracie Klinke, Ayers is asking the Polk County Juvenile Court to declare Alex dependent upon the state and to approve her as his legal guardian. If the court grants that request, Alex could apply for a form of relief for children who are unable to be reunited with their parents. He could get a green card through the Special Immigrant Juvenile Status program.

Ayers giggled about how she had impulsively offered to take in Alex before consulting her husband.

“I was like, ‘Wait a minute. Stop. Timeout,’ ” Shad Ayers recalled, laughing about his wife.

He thought about it for a few days, wondering whether Alex would fit in with their family and if they could afford to care for him. Then he and his wife invited Alex to their modest home for a cookout. Sitting in their den, they told Alex they expected him to respect them, go to school, and stay out of trouble. He agreed and moved in with them in July.

The transition hasn’t been easy. Shad Ayers works full time for a telecommunications company. And Connie Ayers is taking nursing classes while caring for Alex and her 13-year-old daughter, Alexis. After helping them with their lessons, she sometimes doesn’t get to her nursing homework until after midnight. The Ayerses’ 20-year-old son, Bobby, and Alex take turns sleeping on the couch. And their home has only one shower, so “the bathing schedule is awful,” Connie Ayers said.

So far, Alex has kept his promises. He’s doing well in school. And he voluntarily helps around the house, cleaning dishes, doing laundry, and sweeping.

“Nobody bothers me,” he said. “It’s a happy life.”

Asked about his future, Alex said he wants to become a U.S. citizen, go to college, and study to become a teacher. He also wants to become a professional soccer player. And an architect. He has lots of plans. And the Ayerses say they will be there to support him along the way.

AFP Photo/Mark Ralston

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Texas Schools Pressed To Accommodate Influx Of Young Immigrants

By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times

HOUSTON — A year ago, the Las Americas Newcomer Middle School in the low-income Gulfton neighborhood started the semester with 150 immigrant and refugee students. When the new school year began last month, enrollment skyrocketed to 325 students, most of them newly arrived from Central America.

“It’s put a burden on me because I’ve run out of space,” Principal Maria Moreno said of the school’s dozen portable classrooms set up behind another middle school. She hired five new teachers and a social worker, converted a teachers lounge and school police office into classrooms, and used surplus money to buy projectors, laptops, and desktop computers.

But she still had to turn away more than 100 students.

“That’s not going to stop,” Moreno said. “Since I can’t handle them, they’re going next door. But is next door equipped to handle them?”

That’s a question facing educators across the country. School districts from California to Georgia and Maryland have had to add bilingual programs and social services to help new immigrants, with Oakland hiring an “unaccompanied minor support services consultant.”

Miami-Dade County Public Schools in Florida, home to one of the country’s largest Honduran communities, has requested federal assistance after enrolling 1,469 Central American students since the past school year, including 901 from Honduras.

But nowhere is the impact of the recent surge of immigration felt more strongly than in Texas.

More than 66,000 unaccompanied young immigrants crossed into the United States illegally in the past fiscal year, most entering through Texas’ Rio Grande Valley.

Of those, 37,477 had been released to sponsors across the country as of July 31, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement. California received 3,909 children, while the largest number — 5,280 — went to Texas. Of those, 2,866 have been placed in Houston and the surrounding county.

Texas had long served students who were in the country illegally, and a 1982 Supreme Court case held that the state could not deny them an education. Texas also absorbed 35,000 students after Hurricane Katrina.

The current wave, though smaller, presents special challenges to educators. Many of these students, Moreno said, are fleeing countries in turmoil and need counseling and other social services.

There’s the 12-year-old student at Las Americas sent north by her mother from El Salvador after her cousin was gang-raped. The 11-year-old Salvadoran girl who persuaded a priest to smuggle her north without her mother’s consent. And the 14-year-old Honduran boy whose mother brought him as far as Guadalajara, Mexico, and then ran out of money and told him to hop cargo trains the rest of the way.

Most students don’t speak English. Some indigenous children barely speak Spanish, like the Honduran boy who spoke Mayan Quiche and kept asking Moreno in Spanish, “How do you say this in Spanish?”

The Las Americas school, which serves grades 4 through 8, has students from 23 countries who speak 17 languages. Arabic, Nepali, and Swahili were more common than Spanish until recently. Houston public schools, which plan to expand the Newcomers program, have already enrolled 1,825 new students from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

Some Texans fear that the schools cannot afford the newcomers. But Texas Education Agency officials, who oversee the state’s more than 1,200 school districts and charters, say they already budgeted to cover the extra students and can draw from a state fund with a $263 million surplus if new costs arise.

Agency officials estimate that it will pay districts $9,473 to educate each bilingual student this academic year. That’s $1,573 more than it paid for the typical student.

If most of the young immigrants placed in Texas enroll in school, the total cost of educating the newcomers could top $50 million.

Federal officials say that it’s difficult to estimate how many of the young immigrants have enrolled in schools. The U.S. Department of Education has released guidance to schools, but has not tallied costs.

“The financial impact of unaccompanied immigrant children is an incredibly complicated number to calculate in a particular state, district, or school, much less nationally. It depends on a range of local factors,” department spokeswoman Dorie Nolt said.

Those factors include the number of English-as-a-second-language students already in a school and the level of community programs and state support. Also key is existing enrollment, Nolt said, adding that some urban districts are underenrolled and may have extra capacity.

“There was this concern at first that there was going to be this flood of kids,” Nolt said. “Some urban districts have seen a lot, but the vast majority have not.”

But Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) and other Texas conservatives complain that the migrants will place new demands on already overcrowded schools.

“Regrettably, American taxpayers will be asked to foot the bill for the burden on these school districts,” Smith said.

In the Houston area, Liberty and Galveston counties and the cities of Magnolia and League City recently passed resolutions condemning federal efforts to house migrant children in temporary shelters, or directing officials not to cooperate with federal authorities to maintain the facilities. One resolution branded a shelter a health risk.

Moreno has spoken to conservative community groups and tried to allay such concerns, noting she screens birth certificates and proof of immunization.

“What’s better than having an educated child who can get a job and pay taxes?” she said. “You want them to be educated and fend for themselves.”

As Moreno walked among classrooms recently, she stopped to talk to the 14-year-old Honduran boy who rode the trains north and has transformed himself, in a few short weeks, from class clown to dedicated student, she said.

In a math class of 30 students, a girl with curly brown hair and dangling gold earrings gave Moreno a shy wave. It was the 13-year-old Salvadoran who had been struggling with her father.

Moreno bent low, whispering to the girl that she would catch up with her later. The girl’s father had not telephoned the principal for help this weekend. Moreno took that as a sign of progress.

Photo: Los Angeles Times/MCT/Molly Hennessy-Fiske

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