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GEORGETOWN, Del. - Macarena Vicente Morales was 17 years old and nearly eight months pregnant when she swam across the Rio Grande last spring, marking the end of her childhood in Guatemala and the beginning of a new life in the United States.
“I was most afraid the moment we had to cross the river,” she said. “You cross at night, around midnight … I'd been told that when the current is strong people get swept away.”
Morales is one of nearly 70,000 unaccompanied minors – children traveling with no adult relative – who crossed the border last fiscal year. Many said they were fleeing violence and poverty in countries like Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
But Morales said she wasn’t escaping violence; she came to provide a better life for her son. During her three-month stay at a Texas refugee shelter, Morales gave birth to Jacob. And in July, the new mother and baby moved in with Morales' older sister in Georgetown, Delaware – home to one of the highest concentrations of Guatemalans in the United States.
A federal law meant to protect children allows unaccompanied minors from countries that don't border the U.S. to stay on American soil during their deportation proceedings. While they wait, they're also entitled to a public education. This has left many schools grappling over how to serve these children, who have different levels of education and English skills, and in many cases, fragmented families, histories of trauma and very uncertain futures.
Migrant workers have been coming to Sussex County, Delaware, since the early 1990s, seeking work in agriculture and poultry plants. Back then, just 2 percent of Georgetown's population was Latin American. By 2013, that number had soared to 43 percent.
But few were prepared for this new wave of young migrants. Donald Hattier, who's on the school board of the Indian River School District in Sussex County, said the arrival of nearly 70 migrant children in one school year blindsided his district.
“It would have been beneficial to us to know what they're coming in with as opposed to, ‘Surprise!’" Hattier said. "Nobody likes surprises."
I tell my students there's always someone who's going to make a negative comment. There's always someone who hasn't been in your shoes.
Hattier recognizes that the system is helping the children. But he said local taxpayers, who he represents, are unhappy with the pressure it's placing on the district and the fact that they had no say in it.
“I would prefer it if we were able to keep those folks in Mexico, Guatemala, whatever," he said. "We as American taxpayers ought not to be responsible for them. It's not our job."
But a small group of teachers here believe they are responsible for educating these students.
“I tell my students there's always someone who's going to make a negative comment," said Lori Ott, a teacher at Morales’ school. "There's always someone who hasn't been in your shoes."
Last summer, Ott and her colleagues scrambled to create a special program for the new students, with the goal of getting them up to speed so that they can join the regular high school after a year. Immediately though, Ott and the other teachers began facing cultural hurdles. During the first months of school, some students, when they got too hot, took their shirts off in the middle of class.
“We'd have to explain to them, 'No, you have to keep your shirt on' in a way that's not embarrassing for them,” Ott said.
Communication has also been a challenge for many kids from indigenous communities in Central America who speak neither Spanish nor English.
“Reading and writing is definitely a struggle for them, because they don't read and write in the first language," Ott said. "But those things little by little are coming along."
The program offers the students a fresh start. But Hattier said the cost of creating an entire program for undocumented immigrants is infringing on the rights of other students.
“I can't put an exact dollar amount on it,” Hattier said. “I do know that we have had to shift resources away from the other kids in order to accommodate that.”
According to the school district's chief financial officer, Patrick Miller, the new program costs nearly $700,000 out of an annual budget of $115 million. He said that comes out to $4.28 this year for the average district taxpayer.
But that doesn't include all of the costs. Hattier said the increase in social services for undocumented immigrants is also burdening his district. “As an American taxpayer, ask yourself, 'Why do you want to pay for this?'"
Whose burden to bear?
Hattier isn’t the only one who feels like he was caught off guard. State officials complain the federal government has created the situation but provided no funding for it.
Delaware Gov. Jack Markell wrote a letter to the federal Department of Health and Human Services last summer asking for help. Half a year later, the state says it hasn't received any additional funds for the 212 migrant kids that the federal government placed with Delaware families in fiscal year 2014.
The department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, which places unaccompanied children with guardians across the country, said in an email that “once a minor is discharged … we no longer have custody or jurisdiction.”
While state officials couldn’t give an exact number for the cost of educating last year’s influx of migrant students, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a nonprofit that advocates for reductions in immigration, predicted that the number could be as high as $3.5 million for Delaware and as much as $760 million nationwide.
Washington, however, is more focused on preventing the next wave of migrant children than on bolstering funds for states dealing with the current one. While the number of children crossing into the U.S. has dropped compared to last year's dramatic spike, analysts predict another influx this year – a sign that the crisis is far from over. Last week, a House panel passed a bill that would send migrant kids home faster – a strategy critics charge could send children back to dangerous environments in their home countries.
In the meantime, Morales plans to keep studying. Her goal is to become a nurse or a doctor someday.
“I think we want what's best for our children regardless of whose child it is," said Ott, Morales' teacher. “They're the future of this country so we need to educate them.”
And despite his personal feelings, Hattier acknowledged that his district is more prepared than most for another possible influx of migrant students.
“If you had to pick a district where this is likely to succeed properly, this is the one because we've been dealing with it for so long,” he said. “It's not an issue of whether we like it or not, it's an issue of we're going to succeed at it, because we have to.”
Although Morales' future here is uncertain, her son, Jacob, is an American citizen, and can stay on U.S. soil for the rest of his life.
"When he's old enough to understand, I'm going to tell him everything," Morales said. "The reason why we came, what the trip was like, so that he'll understand and take advantage of the opportunity that he has here."