Welcoming the 'most vulnerable'

This editorial appeared in The Herald-Sun on Sunday, March 8, 2015.

More than 2,100 unaccompanied immigrant children have been placed with sponsors – often family members – in North Carolina, according to the U.S. Office of Refugee and Resettlement.

North Carolina is one of the “highest receiving states” for such children, estimated to total more than 57,000 nationwide, Esther Yu-Hsi Lee reported on the left-leaning ThinkProgress website in January.

These children – placed temporarily with sponsors while awaiting decisions by immigration courts – are “the most vulnerable of the voiceless,” George Eppsteiner of the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice wrote in an opinion piece in The News and Observer last September. They “often are escaping insurmountable poverty and violence in their home countries.”

We are a compassionate society. We would almost universally, you would think, rally to the cause of supporting and welcoming these children.

Sadly, in many North Carolina communities, just the opposite reaction is being openly voiced by government bodies or is implicit in obstacles and delays that confront those children as they attempt to enroll in school. That reaction ignores state law that says any child – regardless of immigration status – is entitled to public education in their home school district.

Boards of commissioners in Rowan, Brunswick and Surry counties have passed resolutions objecting to such enrollment. The social justice coalition has filed federal civil rights complaints against Buncombe and Union county school districts for denying enrollment to unaccompanied immigrants.

Given those sentiments, it is welcome – and reassuringly unsurprising – that Durham is taking the opposite tack and forthrightly welcoming the estimated 300 such children here. 

The Durham City Council unanimously adopted a resolution urging local government departments to serve those children and thanking the school district for enrolling them. Monday, the school board unanimously and swiftly adopted a similar resolution. 

“We didn’t even need to debate it because we know it is one of our values,” board Chairwoman Heidi Carter said. 

Eppsteiner was among those who spoke at Monday’s meeting.  The board’s support is important, he said, “because there have been some unwelcome resolutions that have been passed in … other areas that don’t have large populations of these children.”

The board heard from Alex Herrera, a Riverside High School junior who migrated from Honduras when he was 7. 

“At Riverside alone about 60 immigrant children are enrolled per semester and this year we have tried to tutor them,” he told the board. “The teachers have helped. The students have helped but it is not enough sometimes and we need the extra help from you.”

We’re proud to be in a community where that extra help is willingly extended, instead of meanly denied.