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Area school officials say they don’t know how many refugee students, if any, will enter local schools this year but they are prepared to teach them as they would any others.
Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield said it won’t be clear until after school begins whether any of the 1,154 refugee children who came to Georgia between Jan. 1 and July 7 this year will attend Hall County schools. But the district already has programs in place to assist children who are facing challenges such as learning English as a foreign language.
Priscilla Collins, chief achievement and accountability officer for Gainesville schools, said the city school district has educated refugee students in the past. It plans to work closely with both teachers in the local English for Speakers of Other Languages program and officials with the state-level program to ensure any refugee children who enter the district this year receive the assistance they need.
Gov. Nathan Deal announced the arrival of the 1,154 children in a letter to President Barack Obama in which he said the state should have been informed of the arrival of the children earlier. The letter also said it will be “unacceptable” if the children are granted refugee status, because that status will entitle them to social welfare benefits not available to children who have neither lawful immigration nor refugee status.
“Georgia already holds a disproportionately large refugee community,” the letter said. “Before any children are sent to Georgia, we need to know their federal status and the plan for returning them to their parents or guardians.”
Kenneth Wolfe, deputy director for public affairs with the Administration for Children and Families Division of the U.S. Department of Health of Human Services, confirmed 1,154 children were discharged from the department’s Unaccompanied Alien Children program to sponsors in Georgia between Jan. 1 and July 7 of this year.
According to Department of Health and Human Services materials, unaccompanied minor children sent to the United States without legal immigration status must “be promptly placed in the least restrictive setting that is in the best interest of the child,” under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008.
According to the materials provided by Wolfe, an average of 7,000 to 8,000 children enter the Unaccompanied Alien Children program each year, and 93 percent of those children come from El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras. The materials said the children often come to the United States to escape violence, abuse or persecution, to seek out family members or to find work, and that the children are sometimes brought into the country by human trafficking rings.
Greg Bautista, a community activist for Hispanic issues in Gainesville, called Deal’s letter “insulting,” saying it ignores the situations of extreme violence that the children flee to the United States to avoid.
“Going back home, they would be subjected to either being murdered, or their family has to put up a ransom, or the girls being prostituted (by force),” he said. “We’re not talking about children who back in their home countries have a chance for survival. Words can’t describe the nightmare of violence that they’re coming from. It’s a genuine war that is taking place in Central America ... people being murdered in their homes, entire towns under siege by these terrorist groups, and kids with no other choice but to flee.”
Bautista said Hall County’s Latino population is largely Mexican, so he said he does not expect to see many children from other Central American countries seeking refuge with family members here.
Collins said the children with refugee status who were served by the Gainesville school district last year were mostly older children, and it’s not clear if children who enroll this year will be in the same age group. Either way, she said the schools will provide all children with an equal education.
“Our director of English for Speakers of Other Languages and district-level staff will work closely with the schools,” she said. “We do all we can to support the students and would not treat them any differently from other students.”
Schofield says the Hall County school system already has numerous learning support systems in place for students facing a variety of challenges. He said the district enhanced its support systems for immigrant students during a 10-year period beginning in the late 1990s when the district saw a steep increase in enrollment of immigrant students.
“We are probably better able to handle it than a lot of districts,” he said. “It’s been 15 years that we’ve received significant numbers of first-generation immigrants each year. Whether it’s three (students) or it’s 300, our teachers and our principals will take care of them.”