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Unaccompanied minors in Alabama increase with national trend

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

The number of young unaccompanied immigrants taken into custody at the U.S. southern border and sent to sponsors in Alabama has increased from October through June to 1,062. 

Nationwide, 59,161 of the youth were released to sponsors between October and the end of June, according to federal Office of Refugee Resettlement data. Only 10 states have received more of the immigrant youth than Alabama. The 2021 totals nationwide and in Alabama are set to outpace fiscal year 2019 highs of 72,837 and 1,111, respectively.

Last week, the Associated Press reported that U.S. authorities likely picked up more than 19,000 unaccompanied children in July, exceeding the previous high of 18,877 in March. The June total was 15,253. The sharp increases from June were striking because crossings usually slow during stifling — and sometimes fatal — summer heat, the AP reported.

Republicans blame the Biden administration on the increases. Congressman Robert Aderholt, R-Haleyville, called Biden’s policies “a disaster from the very beginning.”

“Even before he took office, he said things that I believe communicated a message of ‘Once I’m in office, come on up, the welcome mat will be out,’” Aderholt told Alabama Daily News on Monday.  “The Trump Administration was doing the right things when it came to border security. We need to bring those policies back, secure the border and finish the wall.”

When minors not accompanied by a parent or legal guardian are apprehended at the border, federal law requires that the ORR, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, feed, shelter and provide medical care to them. The office then releases them to sponsors — usually family members — while the minors await immigration proceedings.

Most of the minors are teen boys from Central America.

Unaccompanied Children Release Data

(OCT. 2019 — SEPT. 2020)
(OCT. 2020 — JUNE 2021)*
Alabama 247 1,062
Alaska 0 1
Arizona 162 377
Arkansas 87 396
California 2,225 5,985
Colorado 172 595
Connecticut 260 799
Delaware 107 296
DC 48 158
Florida 1,523 6,254
Georgia 559 2,315
Hawaii 6 9
Idaho 19 48
Illinois 211 896
Indiana 209 806
Iowa 119 380
Kansas 95 387
Kentucky 158 576
Louisiana 355 1,603
Maine 11 38
Maryland 825 2,983
Massachusetts 448 1,414
Michigan 74 236
Minnesota 151 569
Mississippi 108 406
Missouri 93 421
Montana 2 13
Nebraska 130 504
Nevada 79 235
New Hampshire 8 32
New Jersey 921 3,095
New Mexico 34 67
New York 1,663 4,782
North Carolina 610 2,369
North Dakota 1 6
Ohio 260 967
Oklahoma 120 537
Oregon 71 272
Pennsylvania 271 1,062
PR 3 0
Rhode Island 92 254
South Carolina 255 938
South Dakota 44 126
Tennessee 510 2,299
Texas 2,336 8,542
Utah 75 170
Vermont 1 6
Virginia 770 2,927
Washington 237 603
West Virginia 4 36
Wisconsin 62 296
Wyoming 6 13
Virgin Islands 0 0
TOTAL 16,837 59,161

Source: Office Of Refugee Resettlement

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees calls north Central America one of the most violent places in the world. Gang violence, threats, extortion, persecution and sexual violence have forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes in search of safety and a better life, according to the agency.

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has made the situation worse. “Lockdowns and restrictions of movement have allowed gangs to exert control over food and medicines in certain areas as well as to target people more easily,” the agency says. “Furthermore, many have lost their livelihoods due to the pandemic’s economic impact and violence against women has soared.”

The increase in unaccompanied minors to Alabama has gotten the attention of other state leaders. Sen. Arthur Orr this spring again asked the Catholic Social Services, which helps settle the young immigrants, to better spread them around the state so that their educational needs aren’t placed on a few school systems.

In an April letter, Orr noted that most cannot comprehend English.

“Consequently, many thousands of dollars must now be spent on numerous educational remediation mechanisms thereby taking resources from our already existing high number of poverty students who need additional attention and support,” Orr, the Senate education budget committee chairman, wrote. “Further, as you know, these same English Language Learners must take all standardized tests after a year of being here. Obviously and understandably, their scores are very poor due to language barriers. Nonetheless, these very low test scores mixed with the already challenging environment for our public school educators create a very poor academic showing for Decatur schools when compared to surrounding systems.”

In 2017, Decatur City Schools officials told the Decatur Daily that many of the teens enter the system with little education from their home countries. And if they enter school in the ninth grade, they’re expected to graduate within four years. If they don’t, or if they drop out, it counts against the system’s rankings, as do the students’ standardized tests scores.

Orr said this is part of the reason Decatur isn’t growing.

“Because of the poor test scores that are a result of poverty and the challenges it presents our students and the growing English Language Learners population, people do not desire to live in Decatur.”

A Franklin County school leader told the Daily that the students often stop attending.

The minors are usually released to areas with higher Hispanic populations. In Alabama, those tend to be areas with agricultural industries, including chicken processing plants. Many of the minors in recent years found sponsors in DeKalb, Franklin, Marshall, Morgan, Tuscaloosa and Jefferson counties.

Former Congressman Bradley Byrne in 2019 said federal statistics show that in 2018, nearly half of all immigration court removal orders for minors were ordered in absentia, meaning the minors were not in attendance. Byrne called the system broken.

The ORR reports counties that have received 50 or more of the minors in a given year. So far this year in Alabama, those counties are: Jefferson, 186; Marshall, 121; Baldwin, 89; Lee, 69; Tuscaloosa, 60; Mobile, 59; and Coffee, 52.

In 2016, then-Baldwin County Commissioner Chris Elliott was part of a group opposed to ORR building temporary shelter for up to 2,000 immigrant children and teens at Naval fields. 

In 2018, Elliott and others opposed a federal plan that would have put up to 25,000 immigrants in the area. 

“Obviously this has been a long standing concern for me and my constituents in Baldwin County,” Elliott, now a state senator, told ADN recently. “We have a long history with the Office of Refugee Resettlement and our concerns about unaccompanied minor aliens are well documented.”

Elliott said the immigrants put an incredible burden on the school system and our public services here in Baldwin County.  “But almost more importantly, I’m concerned about the long term, safety and tracking of these individuals that seem all too often to slip through the cracks and disappear into the underworld, if you will, where nobody knows where they went, what they’re doing or whether or not they’re safe,” he said. 

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