At the low-slung bungalow west of downtown, a youngster screams from a vaccination and a nurse records the height and weight of an older boy. Academic counselors stand by, because it is here that many children who recently crossed the southern border enroll in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
As the line runs out the door of the cramped reception area, José Miguel waits his turn to sign up 17-year-old niece Elena, a native of Guatemala who crossed over from Mexico in March without her parents or a guardian.
Under federal law, these children are entitled to attend public school regardless of immigration status.
“I am planning for 1,000 this year, but I will know more when our doors open,” L.A. Unified Supt. John Deasy said just before the nation’s second-largest district started its school year on Tuesday.
Across the country over the next year, federal agencies expect to manage about 60,000 minors who entered or will arrive in the United States without an adult guardian. That figure compares with about 7,500 who came in annually before the numbers surged to 13,625 last year and about 25,000 in the current year.
“We welcome the new youth with open arms in LAUSD,” Deasy said last week in an interview with reporters and editors at The Times.
Many unaccompanied minors land in Southern California; here they can be cared for by relatives who are part of well-established expatriate communities from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras — the impoverished and sometimes violent countries from which most have journeyed.
José Miguel, a worker in the garment industry, needs assistance in part because his own education was limited. He speaks Spanish, but his first language is a Guatemalan dialect. Immigration authorities left him a stack of papers for his niece. He’s not sure what district staff need to see.
The center is outfitted to handle Spanish and Korean speakers, and brings in interpreters as needed.
L.A. Unified officials have warned schools to be prepared for students who may be afraid to enroll or who could experience separation anxiety and grief. Some have suffered trauma from witnessing violence. They may be undereducated or even illiterate.
Some of the girls might have been sexually abused; some are parents themselves. Diapers are among the supplies at the school enrollment, placement and assessment center, located in a fenced corner of Plasencia Elementary School.
Services for these students could be costly. School officials in Miami have petitioned for federal aid. Although Congress is debating the issue, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said his department might be able to help through such sources as funding for migrant or homeless students.
Deasy says L.A. Unified is more likely to rely on California’s new funding system, which provides extra money for students learning English and others with special needs.
These immigrants are not universally well-received.
In Murrieta, more than 100 demonstrators blocked busloads of immigrants, mostly women and children, from entering a local processing center. And during one weekend in July, anti-immigrant activists staged approximately 300 protests around the country, according to the Anti-Defamation League, which tracks the issue.
In an interview on WOCA radio in Florida, Rep. Rich Nugent (R-Fla.) asserted that many of the young immigrants are “gang members ... brought up in a culture of, you know, of thievery, a culture of, you know, murder, of rape.... And we’re going to now infuse them into American culture. It’s just ludicrous.”
In contrast, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office has sought to be a liaison among local groups working with these immigrants, a spokeswoman said. The mayor’s office also has offered to help find temporary shelters.
“When you’re talking about children, you have to set politics aside. This is a humanitarian issue, and the most important thing for me is to make sure these children are safe and sheltered,” Garcetti said.
Roman Catholic Archbishop of Los Angeles José Gomez told National Public Radio that the children should be treated as victims in need of help rather than as lawbreakers who should be hastily deported.
Deasy says he is “clearly aligned” with Gomez’s view that the children are “refugees not criminals,” adding: “We must have unconditional regard for youth.”
At a recent meeting with principals, Deasy made it clear that students were to be enrolled without delay.
Students must have vaccinations verified or administered, but everything else can be postponed, such as submitting transcripts, birth certificates and proof of residency within L.A. Unified. When documents are unavailable, the district allows guardians or “sponsors” to sign affidavits; the district also evaluates language skills and academic levels.
After talking with José Miguel, counselor Dianna Armenta concluded that Elena probably has the equivalent of a sixth-grade education. Her family could not afford to pay for secondary school, said José Miguel, who declined to share his full name out of concern that he might be targeted for helping his niece.
During the 2013-14 school year, the immigrant enrollment center handled 1,800 students, an increase of 400 from the previous year. In the latter months, 80% were “children who crossed the border unaccompanied,” one just 7 years old, according to an internal district analysis.
The numbers from the center don’t provide a full count because schools typically enroll new students on their own.
The impact, however, is probably reflected in the figures for Spanish-speaking students who are not fluent in English. Their numbers had been declining in L.A. Unified, but increased last year from 142,457 to 146,794, even as overall enrollment dropped.
Other districts also have recorded a rise in these immigrants. In San Francisco, recent figures show that 250 more students than at this time last year have enrolled in a program for newcomers.
“We welcome the privilege to educate all children, regardless of their immigration situation,” San Francisco Board of Education President Sandra Lee Fewer said in a statement. “We also support family reunification.”
In L.A. Unified, “we don’t know how big a problem this is going to be,” said Debra Duardo, executive director of Student Health and Human Services. But “school is the best place for them to be.”
Deasy’s “heart is in the right place” in terms of the district’s outreach, said Chris Chmielenski, an official with NumbersUSA, a group based in Arlington, Va., that wants to limit legal and illegal immigration. “But we don’t think that’s the message that should be getting back to Central America.”
More families could be encouraged to pay smugglers to send children on the dangerous trek to the border, Chmielenski said.
Elena, said José Miguel, is excited to be going to school and hopes to become a doctor or a nurse.
“She came here for the American dream of a better opportunity,” José Miguel said in Spanish. “She’s sad because she misses her parents, but she’s also worried about being sent back.”