Howard School sees surge in immigrant students

The number of immigrant students at The Howard School is on the rise (IMAGE: WTVC)

The Howard School in Chattanooga is seeing a surge in unaccompanied minors who left their homes in Mexico or Central America and crossed the border alone, looking for a better life.

Federal law requires the government to feed, shelter, and provide medical care for children who cross the border without a parent or guardian. The Office of Refugee Resettlement reports while these children and teenagers wait on immigration proceedings, they often end up with family members who are already in the U.S. Others left their family and are now staying with sponsors, but all come over with the hope of finding a better life.

“My family is my life,” 18-year-old Howard student Elisa Martinez said.

Martinez is one of the tens of thousands of teenagers that customs officials said cross over into the U.S. alone each year.

Mateo Lopez was just 16 when he left Esquintla, Guatemala with his little brother.

“When I brought my brother, he was only 9 years old, and I protected him because there are some bad people,” Lopez said.

Both Martinez and Lopez ended up at the Howard School, after their dangerous journeys across the border. Lopez said he was robbed at gunpoint along the way.

“I was scared because they pointed a gun at my head and they told me give me everything that you have,” Lopez said.

But Lopez kept going, knowing what could be ahead -- the opportunity for an education in the United States. Hamilton County has a program designed to help students in these situations called English for Speakers of Other Languages, or ESOL.

“We're getting kids that really want to succeed in their lives,” Howard teacher Andrea Dyer. “They want to have an education. They want to better their lives.”

In just two years, teachers Dyer and Ellen Smith said they've seen the number of unaccompanied minors who make their way from Central America, and are now at Howard in the ESOL program, grow from just a handful to more than 200.

So, why do they end up at Howard?

Hamilton County School officials said they do not track how many unaccompanied minors are in the district, but the ones they do serve, they bus to cluster sites. They said roughly 27 schools in the district have ESOL programs now.

Dyer’s compassion for her students led her to legally adopt two of her students.

“We absolutely love our girls and they are definitely part of our family now,” Dyer said.

Meanwhile, Martinez said she made the choice to come alone from HueHuetenango, Guatemala. She has now been at Howard for two years.

“At first, my parents told me no, that I was crazy. But, then they realized that they can't give me a better future,” Martinez said.

But, a better future means these students have to grow up very quickly.

“I think almost all of my kids work at night. They come to school from 9am to 4pm, then they work from 5pm to midnight, or sometimes midnight to 8 in the morning,” Dyer said.

In June, Dyer and Smith went to Guatemala and met some of their students’ parents.

“We had grown men, grown women just cry and ask us when their children were coming home and can they come home,” Smith said,

But ultimately, Smith said these family members allowed their kids to leave - a sacrifice with hopes for a better life.

“Even if they went back to Guatemala and lived in Guatemala again, they have an education in the United States,” Smith said, “They have learned English. They are bilingual. That is a huge, valuable thing for their culture and their economy and everything there.”

But is living in the land of opportunity worth the treacherous journey? Lopez said if he had to do it again, he would.

Dyer said they are getting new students each week, and the surge is so large, the school could be looking at expansion just for this group of students. According to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the Obama administration has released more than 128,000 unaccompanied minors into the U.S. in the last three years.

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