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Surge of Unaccompanied Minors Crossing Border Presents Education Challenges

As a record number of undocumented children from Central America flows across the U.S.-Mexico border without a parent or guardian, federal officials are scrambling to provide shelter, food, and other basic services to these youth while they are detained and await removal proceedings.

And after another weekend of surging numbers of children crossing into Texas overwhelmed U.S. Border Patrol facilities in the Rio Grande Valley, federal officials bused hundreds of the minors to a detention center in Nogales, Ariz., to temporarily house them before they are transferred to longer-term shelter facilities. A shelter at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio opened last month and is housing more than 1,200 children, while Obama administration officials have been working over the past week to open additional shelters in Ventura, Calif., and Ft. Sill, Okla.

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Once these undocumented children reach the longer-term facilities, however, they are officially in the care of the Department of Health and Human Services, and that agency is charged with providing them a range of basic services, including education. Even though they are in the United States illegally, federal law requires that these children receive an education that is appropriate for their needs, including instruction in the English language and in core academic subjects. Often, the schooling is provided to these children by local districts or nonprofit providers that work in partnership with the shelters.

But whether federal officials have been able to ramp up resources to expand schooling services for the rapid influx of school-age children and youth isn't yet clear. Senior officials in the Obama administration acknowledged in a call with reporters on Monday that they are struggling just to process and initiate removal proceedings for the recent wave of unaccompanied minors within the 72 hours required under federal law. Senior administration officials said the sheer volume of unaccompanied minors who came through the Rio Grande Valley border sector in May—mostly from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador—has kept federal immigration authorities from meeting the requirement that children be transferred to Health and Human Services custody and care within 72 hours. Instead,  the officials said, they have had to focus on providing hot meals and shower facilities.

There's little doubt that it will take weeks, if not months, for federal officials to either send these children back home or unite them with a parent or guardian in the United States. In the meantime, that means they are likely to have to scale up education services for this very fragile population of students.

This fiscal year, the number of unaccompanied minors crossing into the United States is expected to reach 60,000. Obama administration officials attribute much of the rising tide of children crossing the border alone to escalating violence in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Rumors that children who make it safely across the border will be able to stay in the United States indefinitely are unfounded, they said.

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