Majority of CT's "Border Kids" Settle In Fairfield County


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Bill Sarno

When the Norwalk public schools started a new term shortly before Labor Day, teachers and administrators greeted several dozen students who had come a lot farther than usual to attend class.
These students are among the 60,000 undocumented and unaccompanied small children, teenagers and young mothers of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala who have come to this country so far this year. They were sent north by their parents on a perilous journey to find refuge from the violence and poverty in their homelands.
Some 400 of these unaccompanied children now live with relatives in Connecticut having been sent here by the federal Administration for Children and Families’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).
ORR  released the children to pre-screened sponsors, mostly relatives, who must shoulder most of the burden of their care.
Moreover, the relatives must make sure the children get to immigration proceedings. The law also requires that children attend school and be covered by the same benefits other children receive from the state.
Whether the federal government will help the state and cities with the rising cost of the children’s education and other services depends largely on whether politicians in Washington hammer out a cohesive immigration policy.
By the end of July, Governor Danell Malloy reported ORR had placed more than 320 children with relatives in about a dozen Connecticut cities with significant Central American populations.
Previously, Malloy spurned a federal request to house 2,000 of the children at the former Southbury Training School, saying the closed institution was in no shape for this purpose.
Meanwhile, the number of immigrant children finding at least a temporary homes in Connecticut has grown to 394. Two-thirds now live in Fairfield County, many are in Norwalk where the Latino population is about 25 percent, said Mayor Harry Rilling.
New Haven is home to 66 of the unaccompanied minors, said Martha Okafor, the city’s community service administrator.
Other cities where the children have settled include Bridgeport, Hartford, East Hartford, Stamford,  Meriden and Waterbury.
Recently, mayors from about a dozen towns, led by Toni Harp of New Haven and Bill Finch of Bridgeport, formed a task force to address unaccompanied immigrant issues and their strain on local schools and social services.
Some help is being provided by various religious, nonprofit organizations and health agencies. In addition various social action groups such as Unidad Latina en Acccion have stepped up to provide some support for the children and their local families.
Sympathetic attorneys, such as Yazmin Rodriquez and Daniel Robinson Briand of the Bridgeport-based Esperanza Center for Law and Advoccy, also are providing free or reduced cost legal services.
In Norwalk, Mayor Rilling estimates there are 42 unaccompanied immigrant children in the public school system. “Many do not speak English and many have virtually no reading skills,” he said.
“The  challenge then is providing a special level of teaching to attempt to bring them up to grade level,” Rilling said.
Consequently, Norwalk and other affected cities are reaching out to the federal government for help.
According to ORR, there are existing federal grants where funds may be shifted to be used to educate the unaccompanied minors.
However, over the long run, the challenge seems to be growing and whether more money will be available down the road to meet  increasing needs for education, health care, legal and social services, remains uncertain.
As for the young people now finding refuge, they have paid a heavy price to get to Connecticut. Many have been denied a normal childhood and have had to leave loved ones behind in a hostile environment.
They also have endured difficult journeys, running a gantlet of potential exploiters and abusers, to reach the United States. Many were victimized or abandoned by shady human traffickers, known as coyotes, to whom their parents had paid thousands of dollars to transport their children to the United States.
Once across the border, thousands of children were rounded up and placed in crowded and bare bones immigration holding centers in Nogales, Arizona, Brownsville, Texas and other southwestern towns.
Eventually, many of the young refugees were moved to other states that agreed to share some of the burden or were released through ORR to Latino  families to await immigration court hearings and rulings.
With thousands of deportation cases slowly winding their way through the immigration courts, the final decision may not come for months. Frequently, the process has been stalled because cases have been transferred from courts near where the immigrants had been first sheltered to jurisdictions as distant as Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York City.
According to one national study, in 90 percent of immigration cases. youths without legal representation are deported while nearly 50 percent with attorneys receive protection under immigration law. Advocates for the unaccompanied children are hoping for a higher rate of success.
One of Briand’s clients, a teenager named Wendy from Guatemala, was among several refugees from Guatemala who recounted their frightful odyssey in a New Haven Register story by Mary O’Leary.
Wendy had fled cruel domestic servitude and the threat of being prostituted in Guatemala City and survived a month-long trek, through Mexico and across the Rio Grande into Texas where she was picked up by immigration authorities.
Now 18, Wendy arrived in New Haven last February and started school in the spring as a ninth grader at Wilbur Cross High School.
Briand told the Register that Wendy has a good case for remaining here based on the neglect and abandonment criteria  and because she is truly unaccompanied.