After 14 years of separation from her parents and a harrowing journey across the US border, Milsa Martinez finds solace in the northern Virginia high school where she's perfecting her English and learning civics and math.
For children and teens crossing the border alone like Martinez did two years ago, America's schools are one of the few government institutions where they are guaranteed services, from science instruction to eye exams.
While their cases are being processed by immigration authorities, most of these minors are released to family members or sponsors who are told the children must be enrolled in school.
Schools and districts in metropolitan areas such as Washington, Houston, and Miami have seen an uptick in the number of these students and anticipate more could enroll this fall. "They have their hearts in the right places, but it's a difficult task," said Randy Capps, director of research for US programs at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan Washington think tank.
The government estimates that 90,000 children, primarily from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, could make the journey alone by this fall, and that as many as 145,000 of them could arrive next year. They often come to join a parent, many times escaping criminal gangs, or extreme poverty.
In school, they frequently require special resources like English language and mental health services that already are strained because of budget cuts.
In Miami, the school board voted to seek federal aid after Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said 300 foreign-born students, many from Honduras and traveling alone, enrolled toward the end of the school year. He said the district has both a "moral and legal requirement" to educate the students, some illiterate in both English and Spanish. The cost is about $1,950 more per student than it gets from the state, he said.
"They need to be fed. They need to be clothed. They need to be cared for and then taught," Mr. Carvalho said.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder issued new guidance in May reminding districts that a 1982 Supreme Court ruling gives all children the right to enroll in school, regardless of immigration status.
Kristyn Peck, a refugee programs official with the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, fields calls from school administrators seeking a better understanding of the students.
"They have multilayered trauma," Ms. Peck said. "They often experience trauma which propelled them and motivated them to leave them in the first place. Then they experience trauma along the journey, and then often the experience at border patrol can be traumatic for them. ... These are really special kids with a lot of needs."
Patricia Chiancone, an outreach counselor in the international counseling office in Prince George's County, Maryland, says she hears stories of hardship, including girls being raped on the journey into the United States, siblings and parents killed in gang violence back home and teen brothers from rural Guatemala who left home after their farm harvest was destroyed.
"We see death certificates and we see letters that a minister wrote saying this child left because he was being threatened by this," Ms. Chiancone said.
H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program in Arlington, where Martinez attends school, allows students learning English to stay into their 20s. In the past two years, it has seen increased numbers of students who crossed the border alone. Teacher Michael Coughlin said many work at night in restaurants or in cleaning crews to pay for immigration attorneys or, in at least one case, to pay back a relative who spent thousands of dollars to have them smuggled into the country.
The language barrier proved to be a big obstacle for Ronald Pojoy, who came alone from Guatemala in 2007 when he was 15 to join his mother.
"Sometimes, I tried to give up because it was a lot of language I had to learn," he said. "It was really hard for me because I had to work and then school. That would make me more tired."
Now 21, Pojoy received his diploma last month from Liberty High School in southwest Houston. The school serves a large number of immigrants and offers information about legal and other community services.
"We have to clearly demonstrate to the students that what they are doing is very important. ... We also have to demonstrate to the students that they can make it," said Eddison James, a math teacher.
Ms. Martinez, now 20, said she was 18 when her parents sent for her, after her grandmother died. She was terrified as she made the journey with two smugglers and about 30 others – including children ages about 8 and 9. At one point, she said, a woman with bunions was left behind because she couldn't walk.
Martinez was treated as a minor when detained because, she said, she looked young.
Now, she works at a hospital many evenings taking out trash. She dreams of going to college, but worries about deportation even though she says she was told her immigration case was closed.
The future for these children and teens is unclear.
A law guarantees an immigration hearing to those not from countries bordering the United States. In practice it has led to many staying indefinitely because of delays. Republicans have sought a change to the law and rebuffed a $3.7 billion emergency spending request by President Barack Obama intended to help curtail the tide of these children arriving and to handle their cases more efficiently. Meanwhile, the Justice Department has said cases involving families and unaccompanied children would be moved to the top of backlogged court dockets.
Some likely qualify to stay based on humanitarian reasons.
"I have great hope for these kids able to hang in there, learn English and earn a diploma, and I have great sadness for those who aren't able to do that," Mr. Coughlin said. "It's heartbreaking. I'm aware of the challenges and not all of them are going to make it under these current circumstances."