Across the Border and Into School

Thousands of Central American children made a harrowing journey to the United States. Now they are navigating the arduous process of getting an education.

A young migrant from Honduras sits on the railway tracks in Huehuetoca, on the outskirts of Mexico City.  (Alexandre Meneghini / Reuters )

In the past several years, more than 100,000 children from Central America have fled the violence and poverty of their home countries to travel north—often all alone—for the chance at a better life in the United States.

Most reporters’ accounts of their journeys have detailed their vexing treks and the immediate aftermath of their arrivals; the media has chronicled the possibility—now largely dead—of immigration reform and the ramifications of the surge in unaccompanied minors on U.S. politics. But much less has been reported about the long-term question of what actually happens once these young people are sent to live with family or other caregivers. Across the United States, children are now attempting to build lives for themselves, contending with immigration hearings, and facing the looming possibility of deportation.

As with most young people, school is the daily constant that anchors their lives. For many of these undocumented children, their waking hours are spent mostly in classrooms, where they are attempting to navigate a completely foreign education system. The law is clear: All children in the United States, regardless of immigration status, have the right to a quality public-school education. And while there’s a robust debate over whether or not that should be the case, the fact remains that many of these children will grow up and settle in the United States. Failing to educate them and provide them with the skills for a self-sufficient adulthood only damages the country’s economy and productivity.

Cities have responded to this mandate in distinct ways: In some, a network of programs shepherds families through bureaucratic hurdles, making the process of enrolling in and attending school less daunting. In others, schools and volunteers have cobbled together a tenuous hodgepodge of resources to try and help. But some communities have erected roadblocks—sometimes deliberately, other times because they don’t understand the law—that have made being a student in a new country that much harder.

One day in 2014, Jose, a statuesque 17-year-old with smooth dark skin and short curly hair, told the relatives he lived with in Honduras that he had decided to go north. He had been raised in the murder capital of the world. His father was dead. And Jose wanted to be with his mother, who had traveled to America when he was just a boy. And so, he left.

Jose traveled alone through Guatemala and then through Mexico by train and on foot. It was a difficult trip, and—until immigration officials finally picked him up at the Texas border—he feared he might die of hunger or at the hands of drug cartels every step of the way. As Jose huddled in a frigid detention facility, the authorities tracked down his mother, Dania.

I met Jose (I’ve agreed not to identify him by his full name to preserve his privacy) in the spring of last year at his family’s tiny apartment in a sprawling complex in one of New York City’s poorest neighborhoods. There, Dania earns what she can at a local butcher shop, but she can barely cover the basics. I visited on a warm day and the apartment was stifling. Jose told me about his journey in Spanish—in a voice almost devoid of emotion—as he sat crammed onto a sofa next to his relatives, all of whom are also undocumented. It was a family that finally felt whole again but that was also desperately fragile after nearly a decade apart. As he spoke, Jose’s memories seemed too deliberate, too succinct—as if he hadn’t yet processed what he’d been through or how he ended up in that small apartment in such a huge city. It was only later, when his sister Esmeralda recounted the story of how she and another sister were temporarily separated during their own trek north, that tears rolled silently down his cheeks. “By the grace of God,” Jose said, he arrived in New York City.

He was more right than he knows. Nearly 6,000 Central American child immigrants were released to family members or other caregivers in New York state between September 2013 and October 2014 alone. A politically, racially, and socioeconomically diverse metropolis, New York City in particular can be an extremely fortunate place for a young immigrant to end up. Last year, for example, New York City, in partnership with several foundations, announced that it would provide legal counsel to unaccompanied minors; the city also stationed health and education officials at the courts to help families enroll in the public health-insurance programs, schools, and after-school initiatives that are open to children regardless of immigration status. For all the challenges they face, many of the kids who end up in New York City, an urban haven that has long welcomed immigrants, are lucky: There are people ready to guide them through a complex web of services that has existed for decades.

Jose, at his home in New York City                                                                           Angela Barajas / Fusion

More than a year after his arrival, Jose is still adapting to life in a city that never stops moving, to a language he struggles to understand, and to a home with a mother he is still getting to know. But he has found some refuge at Pan American International High School at Monroe in the Bronx, part of the Internationals Network for Public Schools, a nonprofit that works with the city to educate recent immigrant children who score in the bottom quartile on English-language tests. Bridgit Bye, a no-nonsense but fiercely warm Venezuelan immigrant who will do just about anything to help her overwhelmed students succeed, has been the principal of the school since it opened in 2008. “If you’re working here, you’re working from your heart,” she told me during an interview in her office, a quiet retreat compared with the bustle and noise of a chaotic outer office.

Bye previously taught Spanish in Staten Island and worked with refugees in Brooklyn, and she is familiar with the challenge of educating undocumented minors. Specifically created for recently arrived teens, Pan American has bilingual instructors and counselors who often work on Saturdays to help the school’s 420 students catch up. There’s an onsite clinic for kids who need health care, and there’s a new day-care center, too—recently added to accommodate the swell in indigenous girls showing up pregnant or with babies. If dealing with a surge in undocumented minors has made her job more difficult, Bye didn’t say so. “If they get school, they could be great providers to the American economy,” she said.

Students, families, school staff, and nonprofits familiar with Pan American and the Internationals Network overwhelmingly say the environment is supportive. These schools have made a real effort to deal with the unique nature of their student body. Sonia Sendoya, for example, was hired to help Internationals Network schools adapt to the recent flood of new students. Relatively young, fluent in Spanish, and prone to smiling, Sendoya visits campuses around the city to check in on kids. She gets along well with the children, who see her as a confidante. And parents also trust Sendoya; she makes house calls to check in on students of concern. So at a school like Pan American, Jose has more help than most undocumented minors in the United States could hope for. This is the system working at its best. Nevertheless, he still carries striking emotional and cultural burdens—issues that have nothing to do with academics but that nonetheless impact, in very real ways, his ability to participate in school.

The trip north is fraught with danger. There are gangs, corrupt immigrant smugglers (known as “coyotes”), and drug cartels to contend with. Sometimes kids make promises to send money back to the hustlers who helped ferry them to the border. Threats from coyotes can even make their way to American schoolyards months later: Pay up, or else. Young girls regularly report being sexually assaulted on their voyages. These minors confront intense hunger and dehydration. A child’s entire mental focus is devoted to survival.

For those who succeed and make it to the States, the end of their journey means integrating into a totally unfamiliar community with parents they may not remember at all. Some will meet siblings or stepparents for the first time. The trauma and culture shock doesn’t just disappear. It can weigh on children and, without intervention, manifest as post-traumatic stress, according to mental-health experts who work with undocumented minors. Some kids get depressed, which few schools are equipped to handle. Meanwhile, in addition to the immense hurdle of learning a new language and new academic expectations, children may be grappling with nightmares about their trips through Central America and anxieties that can make studying all but impossible.

“There’s a lot of unique circumstances that definitely put a heavy social-emotional stress on our students, a social-emotional stress that, to be honest, looking at them, I don’t know how some of these students are walking,” David Lenzner, a New York City public-school Spanish teacher in Washington Heights, told me. “It’s shocking to me that they can even get up in the morning, go to school, go to every class, do their homework. That in itself, to me, just speaks wonders about what impressive individuals they are. The challenges socially, academically, emotionally, I certainly don’t know if I would ever be able to handle it.”

Even with help from excellent teachers, counselors, and principals, school can be an insurmountable challenge for undocumented kids, particularly those who didn’t consistently go to school in their home countries. When Jose, who speaks Garifuna and Spanish, first enrolled at Pan American, he understood nothing. Now, his English is improving and schoolwork is getting easier, but a recent phone call with him revealed that even simple questions still require some translation, and he lacks much of the routine knowledge that children born and raised in the United States have been exposed to—like how to write a thesis, conduct a scientific experiment, or solve for x.

It’s not a matter of simply translating concepts, either; teachers are often trying to make up for years of missed instruction while also attempting to be culturally relevant and sensitive. And, while Internationals Network students in the city are exempt from some tests, they still must pass math and reading exams to graduate. The school has relatively low SAT scores and fewer than half of students graduate “college-ready,” according to the state. “The hardest thing has been adapting to the system,” Jose told me in Spanish. “I came from a very different place.”

In Honduras, he said, his teachers sometimes simply didn’t show up. So learning to trust that the adults around him are committed to helping him succeed has been a slow process. He misses the friends and extended family he left behind, and he has had to forge new relationships in a social scene that is as intimidating as it is alluring. He also has had to grapple with being back in the early years of high school, as he now enters his early 20s, despite having completed similar courses at one point in Honduras. The fact is, putting an 18-, 19-, or 20-year-old in the same classes as a bunch of 14-year-olds can lead to intense feelings of inferiority and disillusionment for the older student.

“They’re three, four years behind in their education correspondent to their age,” Lenzner said. “That’s for a school system that is already struggling in terms of things like funding and having the right resources to educate a student that’s there every day properly.” What’s more, many incoming kids haven’t been in school for three or four months. “If they’re making the trip from Central America, certainly they’re not going to school while they’re making that trip,” said Lenzner. “When they get to New York City, it’s then our job to figure out how to battle that interruption and then try and get them up to speed.”

Many children, particularly at Internationals Network schools, know what it’s like to go from trekking through a hot Mexican desert to sitting at a desk all day, scribbling notes, and trying to learn in a language they hardly understand. Still, Jose and the other children who end up in the city are vastly better off than most undocumented minors. For one thing, they have each other. And they have New York, a city where new immigrants have always been part of the deal, and where, over decades, city and school officials have created a web of resources that, while complicated, provide access to everything from counseling to legal assistance. For Jose, the system is working and it’s still an uphill climb.

A few years ago, after kids started coming to him for advice about how to navigate college applications—undocumented students aren’t eligible for federal aid—Lenzner sought the advice of a lawyer friend, Gui Stampur, the associate director of the Safe Passage Project. Safe Passage is a nonprofit linked to New York Law School that represents unaccompanied minors in the immigration process. But after helping Lenzner’s students figure out how to legally access higher education, word spread, and now Safe Passage works directly with schools across the city to provide lawyers for students who need help with immigration cases.

I met Stampur last spring at a weekend soccer match he had organized for young undocumented children. He told me that Safe Passage has a social worker on staff who helps families find other helpful organizations that can “holistically address” issues like a lack of health care or housing insecurity. These are challenges that, unchecked, obviously impact how kids do in school—and whether they go to school at all. “I think our goal at Safe Passage is to enable kids to be kids and to focus on school, to focus on their education,” Stampur said. While most schools in the city, he said, have been good about accepting students, occasionally he has to lean on schools upstate and on Long Island to enroll the undocumented children who live there. Once the kids are enrolled, Stampur tries to take students’ nonacademic worries off their plates. “One of the things I like to say in the meetings with our clients is: ‘Let us do our job, let us do our work, and we’ll hopefully be the best lawyers that we can be,’” Stampur said. “‘It’s very important that you continue with your school, that you focus on math and science and English and history and, of course, gym, and do the best that you can at school.’” Stampur tells kids that if they work hard at school, he’ll work hard on their immigration cases.

Yet, the surge of undocumented minors has strained resources in the city. Counselors are often responsible for hundreds of children. And Lenzner teaches classes with more than 30 kids in the room. Compare that with New York’s private prep schools, which often have adult-student ratios that are as low as 12 to one. That means that the students who already have robust support at home—from music lessons to private tutors—also get more individualized attention at school. While few argue that’s a bad thing in and of itself, it does contribute to an ever-widening education-equity gap, where the kids who need the most end up with the least. “We need probably double the amount of resources we have,” Lenzner said.

A little help has arrived: In the middle of last year, the Education Department said it would allocate $14 million for states to distribute across districts that saw significant bumps in their number of immigrant students. New York state received close to $1.8 million, and it distributed the vast majority of it—nearly $1.4 million—to New York City. The state also allocated 15 percent of its Title III funds, the maximum allowed, to help address the influx of unaccompanied minors; that gave the city slightly more than $9 million in additional funds. Finally, this spring, New York state announced that it is increasing education funding by more than a billion dollars and that it has recently revamped the way English-language learners are taught.

But teachers and advocates say all that money is still just a fraction of the funding it would take to provide enough services—from translating help and mentors to bilingual-teacher training and mental-health counseling—for undocumented minors. Plus, unsurprisingly, Congress did not provide the Department of Education with additional funds to educate immigrant minors for the 2016 fiscal year.

U.S. Education Secretary John King, who previously served as commissioner of education for New York state, has said that the Department of Education is “committed to educating all students regardless of status.” And in a follow-up statement, department spokeswoman Dorie Nolt said, “We remain committed to working with federal partners and community-based organizations to address any issues that unaccompanied children, their sponsors, and families may face in dealing with the education system.”

At least in New York City, there does seem to be a broad commitment—from teachers all the way to district and city officials—to educating undocumented children like Jose. As Lenzner put it, “Part of the reason the school system is so beautiful and so complicated is because we’re teaching the world’s kids.”

On Long Island, services for newly arrived immigrant minors are weaker than in the city—even nonexistent in some areas. School districts and resources are more fragmented, meaning some Long Island schools are left scrambling to offer support to undocumented children, while other schools just a few miles away are prepared. The result has been what onlookers describe as a disastrous combination of ill preparedness and animosity that has literally shut some children out of schools.

The New York State Attorney General’s Office is watching Hempstead, Long Island, a largely black and Latino town 20 miles east of Manhattan in Nassau County, where around one in five people live in poverty. The school district’s total enrollment stands at not quite 8,000 children, and according to a district spokesman, the district enrolled more than 1,000 of those students between July 2015 and May 2016—and that’s on top of the nearly 1,500 new students who enrolled the previous school year. A lot of that is normal—families are always moving in and out of school districts and towns, and each year a new class enrolls as the old one moves on—but Hempstead can’t keep up. Add to that an influx of undocumented minors, a fiscal nightmare, and a corrupt school board, and it’s easy to see why the district is failing. (The high-school graduation rate in Hempstead is around 40 percent, and fewer than 10 percent of middle-schoolers are proficient in math.)

The Hempstead school district is vulnerable. In addition to being economically depressed, it is prone to political scandal: The school board has long faced allegations of racially motivated corruption to disenfranchise Latinos—this has been going on well before the spike in unaccompanied minors. Roger Tilles, a longtime member of the New York State Education Department Board of Regents who represents Long Island, put it bluntly: “There really was an animosity toward Hispanic students,” he said. “In terms of unaccompanied minors, they’re always going to have a struggle in any district, but I think the attitude of leadership is reflected in not just how they were ignored but disparaged in Hempstead.”

A 2015 investigation by the attorney general revealed that Hempstead schools intentionally delayed enrollment by requiring some families to submit burdensome proofs of residency, such as a formal lease even if a family was living with relatives and didn’t have one. Even those undocumented minors who were able to enroll faced problems. The district opened an annex high school apart from the main school and placed many of the new students there. Some kids said they were told to just sign in and then go home. Others were told the district did not have the space or resources to accommodate them.

Where a district like New York City is large and some resources can be streamlined, Long Island is a patchwork of school districts operating independently. And in Hempstead, the property-tax dollars that support the schools aren’t nearly enough, and increasing them is a politically unlikely prospect. (School leaders, however, can earn upward of $150,000.) Hempstead’s portion of the $14 million the Department of Education made available to New York state worked out to a pittance: $31,559. Meanwhile, Hempstead experienced a more than $15 million operating deficit last year and is the most financially stressed school district in the state. The high school is considered “persistently struggling” and is currently at risk of being placed under outside control.

Mike Fricchione, until recently a district spokesman, told me that much of the fiscal strain comes from the fact that the immigrating minors are new children who need to be educated, but—being unaccompanied—they don’t come with comparable sources of new revenue. Even with bilingual teachers, he said, the number of children who speak remote indigenous languages is high and communicating with many of the children is difficult. The local taxpayers just cannot afford the new students. Politicians in other states, including Virginia, have made similar economic arguments and have even asked the federal government to pay the per-pupil cost of educating undocumented minors.

But how many pupils are there? Estimates for the number of undocumented students in Hempstead schools vary—from the mid-100s to more than 1,000—depending on who is doing the guesswork and whether they have a political stake one way or the other. Immigration activists believe the numbers are often exaggerated in an effort to spread fear about children descending on a cash-strapped town and sucking up its resources, but that’s difficult to prove because school districts cannot require a student to reveal his or her immigration status. In less-populous areas across the country, ascertaining the number of undocumented students and how they are faring can be even more difficult to pin down. As an AP investigation pointed out, the government does not publish information about counties with fewer than 50 undocumented minors.

King noted that the U.S. Department of Education has “issued guidance” on working with undocumented minors, and he said, “It’s certainly something that our Office of Civil Rights is active on.” King said the department will soon release more guidance for elementary schools to support undocumented children. That guidance plus enrollment regulations revised by the state last year seem to be working. “If a kid doesn’t have a solid residence, normally we’d say, ‘Go here, not here,’” Fricchione said during a phone call several months ago. “But what’s going on now is we have to enroll everyone.” (During a follow-up conversation in April, Fricchione said he did not recall making that comment.)

In addition to actually enrolling everyone since the attorney general’s investigation, Hempstead has integrated the former annex students into the high school. It also increased spending by more than $6 million in order to offer bilingual teachers, tutoring, and Saturday programs that help children learn English, Fricchione said. Things are moving in the right direction. A spokesman for the New York State Attorney General’s Office said they were not aware of “any major issues with compliance at this time.” And in a statement to The Atlantic, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman wrote: “I am proud of the work my office has done to ensure equal access to education for immigrant children by breaking down barriers to enrollment and attendance in 22 school districts across the state. … We will continue to monitor our agreements for compliance and take any action against other districts engaging in these unlawful practices.”

In Hempstead, the Latino community has made inroads onto the school board, too. Tilles pointed out that the board has gradually shifted to be more representative of the population it serves. “I’m somewhat optimistic that things are changing,” he said, noting that the community recently voted to hire a new superintendent to lead the troubled district, which could also spark improvement.

But Lucas Sanchez, the director of the Long Island offices of the nonprofit New York Communities for Change, says that while the student-registration process has “improved tremendously” because of attention from the attorney general’s office, he doesn’t think the Hempstead school district has done an adequate job of counseling students or placing them in the appropriate courses. Tensions between families with undocumented minors and the rest of the community remain high, he said, accusing the district of fostering mistrust. Sanchez also said he thinks the district has not made enough of an effort to reach out to community organizations that can assist in educating undocumented minors. “I think the issues that remain are concerning proper academic evaluation of the grade level and providing appropriate services so children are able to integrate,” he said.

And of course, money remains a formidable obstacle. Tilles is critical of the federal and state governments’ lack of assistance. “The Senate in New York is no different” than the U.S. Senate, he said. “Anything that smacks of immigration at all, they won’t touch.”

Sadly, Hempstead is not unique. A recent Associated Press investigation found 35 districts across 14 states have either made it difficult for undocumented minors to enroll in school or placed them in substandard alternative programs. A Georgetown Law Human Rights Institute report released in April similarly found that some districts shunted immigrant students into schools designed for children with behavioral issues.

The Georgetown report also noted that in North Carolina and Texas, like in Long Island, schools illegally delayed enrolling children until very specific documentation was provided—documents they didn’t ask U.S.-born kids or families to provide. “A mother from Honduras paid her rent to another tenant living in the same home,” the authors wrote. “School officials refused to accept this as proof of residency. After not being able to secure an affidavit from the homeowner, she was left with no alternatives. The school administrator went so far as to suggest that she move so that she could establish residency.” Other schools discouraged enrollment completely. But, unlike in Hempstead, many school districts around the country have sought to deter unaccompanied minors not because their systems are so overburdened financially but because they fear unaccompanied minors would lower their test scores.

And though New York state did recently clarify what documents schools can and cannot request from new students, the Georgetown report found that school secretaries—who are responsible for actually enrolling children—are themselves sometimes either unaware of the rules or unwilling to follow them. The recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act, set to replace No Child Left Behind, should give states more flexibility in how schools assess English-language learners, and it could potentially reduce incentives that discourage enrollment.

That’s critical, because for many undocumented students, even a hint of discouragement is enough reason to avoid school. The Georgetown report found that many immigrant minors are terrified of deportation and thus fear contact with official institutions or public schools and services. Though immigration officials generally don’t enter schools, that doesn’t stop students from worrying about them showing up at school or rounding up their parents and family members while they sit in a classroom. The Georgetown report found that children sometimes even pretended to be sick during the school day in order to stay home with or check in on their parents.

Their fears are not entirely unfounded—and the Obama administration’s aggressive immigration-enforcement actions in recent months haven’t helped. Hundreds of people have been apprehended this year alone. And while New York City’s efforts to provide children with legal assistance dramatically increases the likelihood that those children will gain some form of lawful status, far fewer kids on Long Island have easy access to attorneys, and the judges are less friendly to them than the judges in the city are, according to immigration activists.

Fears about deportation, differences in cultures, and language barriers also make it hard for schools and families to communicate. Many parents and guardians of undocumented minors have had little formal education themselves and are ill equipped to help their children with homework and school projects. Kids with parents who grew up in American schools often have that guidance built in. So schools have trouble imparting advice to foreign-born parents, but those parents also have trouble expressing their concerns to the schools. Undocumented family members don’t want to make waves or call attention to themselves—lest it lead to a flight back to Central America. Often, when the parents and guardians of undocumented children think the school is mistreating their child, they are reluctant to speak up or are unaware of who is in a position to help. The silence that foreign languages and fears of deportation breed likely mean that some of the issues that emerged in Hempstead are hiding in plain sight undiscovered elsewhere. That’s why even with better enrollment rules and the Every Student Succeeds Act, the Georgetown report calls for more guidance and training for teachers and other school officials, supports blanket testing waivers for undocumented minors (right now, they must be applied for), and urges the implementation of protective mechanisms that would limit the fear of deportation.

But across New York state and the rest of the country, immigration-advocacy groups and think tanks point out that compounding the students’ emotional burdens, fears of deportation, and lack of documentation is the fact that most unaccompanied minors are just plain poor. And, as undocumented immigrants, many students are barred from accessing welfare and other benefits that create at least some semblance of a safety net for poor but legal residents. After all, providing protective measures for undocumented students and giving new immigrants testing waivers may not amount to much if kids don’t have access to the basics—like health care, food, and shelter. And, according to Margie McHugh, director of the Migration Policy Institute’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy, “All of these needs have been largely overlooked in policy debates so far.”

About 60 miles east of Hempstead, the Riverhead area of Suffolk County has drawn what local activists say are more than a hundred unaccompanied minors; they came to reunite with parents who arrived looking for agricultural jobs. The area is home to a number of farms and wineries that rely on Latino farmworkers. Sister Margaret Smyth, a 70-something nun and former teacher who has been working with undocumented families for years, called the surge of children during the summer of 2014 “a shock.”

Smyth is something of a fairy godmother in Riverhead. Her office, a nondescript building in a sleepy part of town, houses a number of volunteers who help families with everything from tracking down unaccompanied toddlers who have somehow gone missing in the bureaucratic immigration-detention process to enrolling children in school once they’ve arrived. The general sentiment among activists is that Riverhead is making a real effort to enroll and educate the unaccompanied minors who continue to arrive, offering English courses after school and stepping up bilingual outreach to parents. Still, the safety net of support services available to New York City students doesn’t exist in Riverhead. “Long Island’s got most of the kids, but we don’t get all the benefits of what you can do in the city,” Smyth said.

So she acts as a conductor, dispatching volunteers and working with the school district to address the needs of students in the most difficult situations. Multiple people told me that Smyth is quick to intervene on behalf undocumented minors, especially on the occasional instances that the local school district drags its feet on an enrollment. (The district did not respond to multiple requests for comment.) As with the schools the Georgetown report examined, the way the Riverhead system is structured can be the real roadblock to enrollment, more so than any particular animosity from the school, observers said. Schools in Riverhead, like so many across the nation, are evaluated and rewarded based on test scores and graduation rates; accepting undocumented children can hurt those measures. Of course, schools are also responsible for helping to produce the future U.S. workforce, and without schooling, recent arrivals are a lot less likely to be successful.

But Smyth knows as well as anyone that attending school is not a panacea. Undocumented minors who enroll in school still face enormous challenges. “The older children who come, so many of them are deficient in education,” Smyth said—in an echo of my conversation with Lenzner. We spoke in Smyth’s office, where a Jimmy Buffett “Margaritaville” sign pays playful homage to her name in Spanish, Margarita. “I’ve been in schools in their countries. They’re way behind, way behind.” Smyth recalled a 17-year-old boy who wanted an internship but was only at a fifth-grade level academically. Another girl, at age 12, looked and acted like a middle-schooler but was academically just in the early elementary years. “What do you do with her?” Smyth asked. And those are just the everyday problems. Smyth has also worked with several children who have been recruited by gangs on the trip north; sometimes parents are notified that their sons will be killed if they don’t send money.

In addition to working with the local schools, Smyth has recruited volunteers to visit children’s homes to try to help both parents and children navigate the school process. “Very often, parents come in here with the papers from school for us to read,” she said. That includes homework: “‘This week, we are studying the letter R,’” Smyth intoned, pretending to be reading a school assignment. “‘On Tuesday, bring in a picture with something that begins with R,’ but they come here on Thursday,” she said. “They missed the big day for R.”

Smyth’s leadership in Riverhead has eased the transition to U.S. schools for dozens of children. She is generally known as a tireless advocate, but she is just one woman performing what is at least three jobs. If she wants to step aside anytime soon, which at her age is not unreasonable, not only is there no one person to fill her place, there’s no easy way of passing on her institutional knowledge—gathered by leveraging relationships built over decades. “It’s hard to find somebody out there,” she said as our conversation wound down. “I do keep it in mind. I never want to run something down into the ground without having it ready and backed up and everything in place.”

While fewer unaccompanied minors are crossing into the United States from Mexico than a couple of years ago, more than 4,000 were apprehended this March alone. U.S. schools will be responsible for educating them. And although the looming presidential election might change the calculus, the chances of comprehensive immigration reform still look slim, meaning many children will continue to arrive in schools with the burden of being undocumented.

In places like New York City, special schools for newcomers will often welcome them. It’s an educational innovation that has gained traction elsewhere, too, from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco. But in cash-strapped parts of Long Island, and many other places around the country, the political and cultural realities are less promising for undocumented minors, places where both voters and officials aren’t willing to devote the resources to helping them. Providing these children with an education may be the right and humane thing to do anyway, but the economic consequences of not doing so—and allowing thousands of young people to grow into adulthood without providing them the basic skills to live and work in the United States—are significant.

Kids like Jose don’t have the option of ignoring the issue; it is their daily reality. But Jose, unlike so many others, found the support systems and educators his new life required. He is more comfortable and more social with each passing month. He likes hip-hop and lifting weights. He told me that he sees all of the challenges he has faced as building blocks to opportunity. He has even heard a bit about college from teachers. And Jose has allowed himself to dream a little: He would like to be a lawyer one day, so he can help people like him build a better life. “It almost feels like the future is beginning to shape itself,” he says. “It’s all good.”

Angela Barajas and Geneva Sands contributed reporting. Ted Hesson contributed guidance. Support for this story was provided by Fusion, where the author worked when she began reporting. The Equity Reporting Project: Restoring the Promise of Education, developed by Renaissance Journalism with funding from the Ford Foundation, also provided support.