How one city is welcoming hundreds of migrant children with open arms

The flood of migrant children is straining municipal budgets as children are reunited with families in cities already struggling with social issues. But in Chelsea, Mass., an outpouring of volunteer support has eased the crisis.

Josh Armstrong/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Chelsea, Mass., located north of Boston, has a large Central American population and has enrolled hundreds of children from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras in recent years.

As unaccompanied children continue to pour across the US-Mexico border from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, they’re creating a challenge for school districts across the country, where local officials are scrambling to put together the resources to educate and care for the new arrivals.

Because the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) often places these minors with family members, the children are disproportionately ending up in cities with large Central American populations – typically low- to middle-income locales already struggling to deal with their own social needs. As a result, city leaders have begun to dig into local budgets, while calling on the federal government to pitch in, and, in some cases, receiving aid from concerned citizens.

Case in point is Chelsea, Mass. – a proud, threadbare tangle of commerce and heavy industry, directly across the Mystic River from Boston. 

Thirty-four percent of the city’s 38,000 residents identified as Salvadoran, Guatemalan, or Honduran at the 2010 census, and during the past four years, this portion has only increased. One block from City Hall on the town’s main thoroughfare, the flags of those three countries adorn the Chelsea Discount Shop, and two blocks away, a delivery business caters only to those sending packages to Central America.

Vendors along bustling Broadway sell pupusas for cheap – a basic Salvadoran dish consisting of cornmeal dough, pork meat, and refried beans – and, on the street, the lingua franca is decidedly Spanish.

Of the 720 new enrollees in Chelsea’s school system in 2013, 267 came directly from Central America’s Northern Triangle, and dozens of other Hispanic students came from Texas or Arizona. In total, 315 spoke little or no English.

Both the city manager, Jay Ash, and the public schools superintendent, Mary Bourque, emphasize that they welcome immigrants with open arms – a stark contrast with many other local leaders across the country, even in progressive Massachusetts, many of whom are calling for a halt to the immigrant influx.

“I have not found any of the pushback in Chelsea that I have seen in other immigrant communities,” says Mr. Ash. “That could be because Chelsea has been a community of immigrants for over 120 years.”

The city has long been a gateway for new Americans – from Russian Jews in the early 20th century to Hispanics starting in the 1970s – but both leaders also acknowledge that hosting these new immigrants hasn’t been without unique challenges, especially for a cash-strapped town where a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line.

Ash notes that though the state often picks up close to 90 percent of the costs of educating Chelsea students, that never covers the extent of the care needed for new students from Central America – a reality that’s putting a strain on the municipal budget. 

“We are seeing significant need for school counselors that relate to that population,” he says. “We’re seeing post-traumatic stress disorder. Without the proper attention, they can create a problem for themselves as well as their classmates.”

As a result, Chelsea schools have redirected $300,000 to boost counseling programs. The district has also hired another two specially trained English instructors this summer, Superintendent Bourque notes, adding to the phalanx of English teachers that she’s already added to in recent years.

Moreover, the influx of new immigrant students is a significant factor in Chelsea’s need to build a new school, which could cost the municipality as much as $20 million, according to the city manager. 

Though the town – having learned tough-love lessons from a tumultuous near-bankruptcy in the ’90s – is in solid financial shape, Ash says the city has needed to “divert significant resources from elsewhere” to accommodate the children. But the burden could be much greater, he points out, if it weren’t for the many community members that have actively come together to support the children – offering every service from mental health care to legal advice.

Among the centers of this aid is the Chelsea Collaborative, a multi-issue nonprofit advocacy and human services organization occupying an unassuming storefront attached to the town’s post office, where hundreds from the Boston area have volunteered their services.

Executive Director Gladys Vega recalls one July 10 meeting in particular in which 139 residents of Greater Boston packed into one small room and an adjacent hallway at the Collaborative to find out how they could contribute.

“There were doctors, lawyers, Catholic charities, counselors, the state senator [Democratic Sen. Sal DiDomenico],… staff from North Suffolk Mental Health, the security guard from Chelsea High School, people from Mass General Hospital, law enforcement,” Ms. Vega says. “We said as a community, let’s put our heads together and try to figure this out.”

Still, even with such support, Ash and Bourque note Chelsea has been forced to make fiscal sacrifices, and they say it deserves more aid from state and federal sources.

“We do believe that there is a cost involved that should be shared beyond the taxpayers of Chelsea,” says Ash, who has reached out to US Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) and US Rep. Mike Capuano (D) about the matter. “There should be some sort of share of responsibility.”

This is a sentiment also expressed by officials in several other immigrant-heavy communities in the Bay State, where 773 of the 30,040 unaccompanied minors placed with guardians by HHS since October have been located.

In the diverse post-industrial city of Lynn, eight miles north of Chelsea, leaders have called upon the state’s congressional representative’s to aid the community of 90,000, where 165 Guatemalan students entered the school system in 2013.

There, Mayor Judith Flanagan and Lynn Schools Superintendent Catherine Latham provoked protest in recent weeks in response to comments they made to The Associated Press, saying the new immigrants could cause the city to “implode.”

Meanwhile, in the working class cities of Quincy, New Bedford, and Everett, which have also been assigned significant numbers of unaccompanied children to host, city leaders have expressed a similar desire for federal funding – or are at least apprehensive about the coming costs associated with the immigrant minors.

Members of the Bay State’s congressional delegation, in response, have said they support directing federal funds to offset costs accruing to towns. But, they say, this process will take time – and, as of now, there’s no legislation on the docket to address the issue and Congress is not due to return until Sept. 8.

While this has been a serious cause for concern among many leaders in immigrant-heavy communities, Vega says this challenge is no big deal for her city, which emerged in the past from setback after setback, including a period of suspended self-government and prolonged periods of lurid corruption.

“Crises could be our last name,” she says. “We went into receivership and had four mayors indicted. So this doesn’t faze us now. We’ll all work together and take responsibility.”

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