News: CJ Exclusives

Counties Worry About Cost of Immigrant-Minor Influx

Mecklenburg, Durham, Wake facing $7 million price tag

Most of the 1,429 unaccompanied minors relocated to North Carolina after they entered the United States illegally were released to host families in Mecklenburg, Durham, and Wake counties, raising health and safety concerns, as well as concerns about increased education costs to local governments.

Estimated additional costs to absorb the influx of unaccompanied minors, based on 2012-13 state, federal, and local per-pupil education and capital-expense records, would be more than $7 million for the three counties alone: $4.07 million in Mecklenburg County, $1.79 million in Durham County, and $1.51 million in Wake County.

Those numbers are based on average per-pupil costs, and do not include additional state and federal funding required for students from low-income families, students who are English language learners, and students who have disabilities. And with waves of unaccompanied minors still streaming into the country, it is uncertain how many more will be relocated to North Carolina.

A just-released report from the Federation for American Immigration Reform says North Carolina statewide will pay $20,861,808 in additional education costs this school year, ranking it No. 11 among the states, due to the influx of the unaccompanied minors. FAIR says the national cost will be $761 million.

“We have had concern about the lack of a transparent plan from the Obama Administration to deal with this situation in a humanitarian and practical way,” said Alexandra Lefebvre, spokeswoman at the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, the state agency at the forefront of the situation.

“In the last few weeks, the federal government has provided some aggregate county level data, more specifics about the background checks, and indicated where sponsors could retrieve medical records for unaccompanied alien children,” Lefebvre said.

“This information, while piecemeal, has provided some additional assurances. We are still hoping to get additional information, such as how children are receiving appropriate follow-up care, or what is the Obama Administration’s plan to ensure the sponsors maintain appropriate contacts with our legal system,” she said.

Federal Office of Refugee Resettlement data from Jan. 1 to July 31 shows 488 unaccompanied minors were transferred to Mecklenburg County, 170 to Wake County, and 157 to Durham County.

The federal government did not say where the other 614 minors were sent. It only releases county locations when 50 or more children are sent there.

State Department of Public Instruction spokeswoman Vanessa Jeter said the state is not tracking where unaccompanied minors are being sent to school. She said she is not aware of any coordination between the federal government and DPI, but did provide a U.S. Department of Education civil rights fact sheet [ http://www2.ed.gov/policy/rights/guid/unaccompanied-children.html ] for educating unaccompanied minors.

Ensuring children are being enrolled, that they have up-to-date immunizations, and that there are enough classroom and English-as-Second-Language teachers to handle the surge are local school district matters, she said.

School districts can request additional money from a contingency fund only if enrollment rises by 100 students or 2 percent of their population after the first month of school, Jeter said.

Durham Public Schools and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials did not respond to repeated requests for information about the unaccompanied minor program.

“We do everything we can to provide the appropriate number of teachers. We increased our enrollment by about 3,000 this year,” including the unaccompanied minors, said Michael Yarbrough, Wake Public Schools spokesman.

The school district did not receive a master list of unaccompanied minors to ensure those of school age actually are enrolled, Yarbrough said. Nor is it keeping a tally of how many have enrolled.

That gap in information is among concerns raised by some congressmen and Numbers USA, a pro-immigration organization that seeks to minimize illegal immigration.

“There’s no one checking. Once the child meets up with the parents or a guardian, there’s no inquiry into the background or inquiry into the safety of the child,” said Numbers USA spokesman Van Esser. “What Congress is worried about is what’s happening to the children. Are they safe under these circumstances?”

“We’re not involved in background checks or anything like that at this point,” said Pam Walker, spokeswoman at the North Carolina Department of Public Safety. However, she acknowledged, “You don’t want them to be vulnerable to any kind of crime such as … human trafficking, or gang affiliation.”

Wake Public Schools spokeswoman Lisa Luten bristled when asked if Wake shared concerns voiced in other parts of the country about unaccompanied minors’ potential for communicable diseases or parasitic infections. “That’s a lot of assumptions about children from other countries,” she said.

Jeter and Luten said unaccompanied minors must present a doctor’s immunization records or shot records from immigration officials before being enrolled in school.

“I don’t think there’s been good documentation of what sort of inoculations they’ve gotten since they’ve come across,” Esser said. “I think it’s a fair question to wonder just what is being done.”

The Centers for Disease Control “believes that the children arriving at U.S. borders pose little risk of spreading infectious diseases to the general public,” said CDC spokeswoman Christine Pearson.

The majority of health issues reported by the Department of Homeland Security at the border stations are associated with the difficult journey, and include scabies, lice, rash illness, respiratory infections, and diarrhea, Pearson said.

Children from Central America often participate in childhood vaccination programs, similar to those in the United States, and many will have received vaccines, Pearson said.

“However, a few vaccines are not offered, have not been available for very long, or are not widely used, such as chicken pox, influenza, and pneumococcal vaccines,” Pearson said. As a precaution the Office of Refugee Resettlement recommends children without vaccine documents receive necessary vaccinations, Pearson said.

Children are vaccinated with multiple vaccines before they are released into a community. Typically, they include Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis); MCV4 (meningococcal disease); MMR or MMRV (measles, mumps, rubella); Varicella (chickenpox); influenza; PCV13 (pneumococcal conjugate vaccine); IPV (inactivated polio vaccine); Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B.

“I can’t think of too many infectious diseases that would cause alarm bells to ring” among unaccompanied minors, said Fred Fuller, an infectious disease specialist at N.C. State.

Head lice and intestinal parasites might be a concern. “The stuff can spread like wildfire,” Fuller said.

Transmission of measles, mumps, and rubella by unaccompanied minors might be of concern for North Carolina families who chose not to have their children immunized, he said.

Dengue fever and malaria could be present in some children, but both require mosquito transmission from the infected person and usually repeat bites, he said. While that risk is small, Fuller said, there is precedent. Some states experienced “massive malaria outbreaks” in local populations where large numbers of infected soldiers returned from World War II.

Aside from those concerns, reports from Border Patrol agents that some of the minors are gang members, and unfunded costs being passed down to local governments, Esser believes President Obama actually is violating the 2008 human trafficking law by applying it to the unaccompanied minors influx.

“If the children have a parent or a guardian in the United States, that 2008 law doesn’t apply,” Esser said. Many of the minors are not unaccompanied, but are illegally entering with parents or relatives, he said.

“So what the president is doing in essence is hiding behind that 2008 law and not allowing them to be deported as they should be under United States law,” Esser said.

Further, he said, there is reason to question whether there is a marked rise in violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras prompting the exodus. Some of the unaccompanied minors “have origins in parts of the country that aren’t part of that kind of violence, so I’m not sure that claim is necessarily applicable to all of them,” Esser said.

Rachel Hicks, press secretary for U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, said the North Carolina Republican believes the current situation underscores his longstanding criticism that the border is not secure, and it is imperative to address the issue.

“With regards to the immediate crisis, the Obama Administration must make it clear to individuals and governments in Central and South American countries that the United States is not relaxing immigration standards for those who illegally cross, including children, and that most of these individuals are required under law to be deported,” Hicks said.

“We are the most compassionate nation in the world, but moving these minors from detention center to detention center is inhumane,” Hicks said. “Sen. Burr supports common-sense changes in existing law that would expedite the removal of unaccompanied minors to their homes, and to keep them from spending weeks or months in federal custody.”

Dan E. Way (@danway_carolina) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.