While the political uproar has died down over the flood of unaccompanied minors caught at the U.S. border, the states taking in the immigrant children continue to grapple with how to welcome – or not – the newcomers to their communities.
In North Carolina, one of the top 10 states to host children as they await their immigration court proceedings, several urban communities are working to distance themselves from anti-immigrant messages seen in rural areas.
On Monday, the Durham City Council joined three other jurisdictions in adopting resolutions with language that explicitly welcomes undocumented immigrants, particularly the unaccompanied minors who continue to be placed to live in the state. Noting that nearly all of the young children swept up by Border Patrol agents said they were fleeing some of the most dangerous and violent countries in Central America, the resolution expresses a commitment to taking the children in and reaffirms their right to attend public schools in the area.
“Community members really came together and suggested to city officials that there was another way to frame the immigration debate,” said George Eppsteiner, staff attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and a supporter of the resolutions.
The decision to find a more inclusive approach toward the young immigrants comes after a number of rural regions in North Carolina sought to do just the opposite. In the months following political outrage over the years-long surge in children at the border, four counties entered the fray by calling on the federal government to “refrain from housing any unaccompanied minors and adults.”
Officials in these rural communities sounded alarms that the migrant kids would drain local resources for schools and health services. Though the resolutions did not outright restrict government services to the unaccompanied minors, pro-immigrant advocates raised their own concerns that the messaging in these rural areas would encourage school administrators to turn kids away based on their immigration status.
The competing language on whether to accept or turn away the young immigrant children follows a massive demographic shift over the course of the last 15 years. In 2000, Hispanics accounted for 4.7% of the population. By 2013, the Latino population comprised 9% of the state’s residents.
In many senses, the welcoming measures are largely symbolic. The children already have the right to attend school. By law, all public schools are required of enroll all students, regardless of their immigration status. But certain North Carolina schools districts have faced allegations of discrimination against undocumented immigrant students.
A coalition of civil rights groups in North Carolina in September urged the Department of Justice to include additional protections for the unaccompanied minors. The groups raised concerns that the state agency tasked with presenting enrollment guidelines to school districts told administrators false information: That under specific instances, districts were allowed to deny enrollment to certain schoolchildren. The guidelines were later retracted. Earlier in the year, the coalition also alleged that two school districts in the state improperly denied enrollment to two unaccompanied minors who sought to attend public high school.
The concerns are not isolated to North Carolina. On the national scale, Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan teamed up last spring with Attorney General Eric Holder to strongly remind school administrators that they are not to request documents from immigrant students or their families with information pertaining to their immigration status.