TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — The federal government has placed more than 5,000 migrant children from Central America with adult sponsors in New Jersey since the fall of 2013, where they are expected to attend school while they seek legal status in immigration court.
America's schools remain one of the few government institutions where migrant youths are guaranteed services, but the federal government has extended little money or oversight to monitor whether that happens, in part because schools are locally governed.
During the dramatic surge of illegal crossings at the border of mostly starting in 2013, the Education and Justice departments issued joint guidance reminding districts that a 1982 Supreme Court ruling established that states cannot deny children a free public education, regardless of immigration status.
Districts found to have broken the law can be forced to change their enrollment policies, but making that happen is not easy.
The American Civil Liberties Union's New Jersey chapter has been at the forefront in the state in pushing to make sure that school districts comply with the law for all immigrant children in the country illegally, not just unaccompanied minors, going so far as to sue eight school districts in 2014 for policies that included barriers to allowing them to enroll.
Alex Shalom, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU-NJ, said that the group sent letters to more than 100 school districts that were requiring parents in the country illegally to bring in drivers' licenses to register children in 2014.
The ACLU sued eight districts, which Shalom said led them to almost immediately change their policies.
"The law says the three things you have to be in order to go to school in New Jersey, you need to be the right age, you need to live in the place and you may need to provide the proof of some immunizations," Shalom said. "If you do those things, there's nothing more. In some ways, the job of districts is making sure that they are getting to that minimum of what is required."
A look at what federal and state data show about unaccompanied minors in New Jersey:
WHERE ARE THEY?
More than 50 unaccompanied minors were settled in 12 of the state's 21 counties, with nearly 1,300 placed in Union County.
Among other counties, Hudson (646), Essex (640), Bergen (515), Mercer (363) and Middlesex (324) also received hundreds of the students.
New Jersey received $4.2 million in federal Title III immigrant funds in the 2016 fiscal year, including more than $800,000 specifically for unaccompanied minors, according to Michael Yaple, a spokesman for the state's education department.
Yaple said the money was used for things including tutorials for English language development and math, supplemental ESL staff, family literacy classes, and classroom supplies.
The awards ranged from $700 up to more than $74,000 for schools in Paterson.
Other districts to receive more than $20,000 include: Jersey City ($61,471), Elizabeth ($55,692), Perth Amboy ($35,271), Union CIty ($32,504) , Woodbridge ($25,884), West New York ($23,853), West Windsor-Plainsboro ($22,417), Plainfield ($21,821) and Trenton ($21,646).