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A closer look at immigrants and schools in NHC after the newcomer school debate

Those standing in support of New Hanover County's Hispanic/Latino Commission in January 2023.
Rachel Keith
Those standing in support of New Hanover County's Hispanic/Latino Commission in January 2023.

After the New Hanover County School district's administration proposed a newcomer school, significant pushback shelved the idea. But the conversation left the idea of who would be served by such a school fairly abstract.

About 6% of New Hanover County’s population is Hispanic, a majority of whom were born here, but there are other immigrants from various ethnic backgrounds around the world.

A recent conversation about a proposed ‘newcomer’ school,' designed to help those literally new to the United States adapt to both the education system and culture, led to public comments about whether that would attract more immigrants — and whether the region could handle them. Some critics of the proposed school used harsher, more directly anti-immigrant language when speaking at the New Hanover County school board meetings or emailing and calling the superintendent. Many conflated immigrants, migrants, and refugees which are overlapping but separate terms.

Related: New Hanover County school board tries to close the door on Mosley, newcomers school discussion

But a focus on who is actually being talked about was left out of these conversations. So, who are these immigrants, and what is their contribution to the county’s economic, social, and educational climate?

Who are the immigrants in our region?

New Hanover County immigrant communities are complex. They come from Mexico and Central America, but also from countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Some are the children of immigrant parents, some are immigrants themselves (both documented and undocumented), others are seeking asylum or are refugees.

Dr. Amanda Boomershine is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington in the Department of World Languages and Cultures. She is a member of UNCW’s Latino Alliance and the county’s Hispanic/Latino Commission.

Boomershine said that immigrants are contributing to the county’s economy. They have a wide range of English-speaking abilities, degrees of education, and professional certifications.

“They are building our community and homes, cooking the food in our restaurants, washing the dishes, caring for our children, and cleaning our homes. They're also professionals: dentists, attorneys, physicians, teachers, and professors,” she said.

Dr. Andres Afanador, whose parents were immigrants, is the Vice Chair of the New Hanover County Hispanic/Latino Commission. He said people tend to fear what they don’t understand.

“They don't understand why they're coming here, and they're perceived as scary. The perception is that they're coming to take my job, or they're members of gangs or they are criminals, but the truth is the vast majority are good people who are here to make a better life for themselves,” Afanador said.

Some have argued that immigrants who are living in the U.S. illegally are a drain on resources, but Afanador said, “There's no evidence that I'm aware of that shows that they're draining funds or are overusing resources; I would suggest that the opposite is true. They contribute to our economy doing physical labor that generates billions of dollars, whether in agriculture or construction.”

Refugees and asylum seekers

Refugees make up one part of the immigrant population. They're often leaving areas suffering from natural disasters or political violence. Their process is tightly controlled — and can be long and expensive.

Wes Magruder is the office director of Church World Service (CWS) Wilmington. CWS is a national non-profit that assists refugees with the financial support of the U.S. government.

Magruder resettled 109 people last year, half of whom were children. This year, they’re allowed to support 180 people.

“The majority of our families come from Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo; we are seeing an increasing number of Afghans. We're also beginning to see an increase in refugees from Latin American countries. In the past month, we've resettled people from Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and Venezuela,” he said.

The federal government heavily vets refugees who come to America. They’re given a green card, social security number, and mandated to work once they arrive. It can take a long time for them to arrive in the U.S. — anywhere from seven to 20 years.

Take, for example, the Rohingya Muslim population from Myanmar.

“Some of those people have been in the camps for closer to 20 years. Every family that comes has a different story. They're all equally heartbreaking and challenging. Some of them have been tortured; I don't know all their individual stories exactly, but they're grateful to be here,” Magruder said.

Asylum seekers are different than refugees.

“US law permits anyone to step foot into our country and claim asylum. I would say the vast majority of immigrants who are coming up through Mexico trying to cross the border, they're seeking asylum,” he said.

Magruder and Boomershine say there’s a huge backlog in processing these claims, as it takes a long time for judges to hear these asylum cases.

Dr. Eleni Pappamihiel is a professor at UNCW’s Department of Instructional Technology, Foundations, and Secondary Education.

“We have to know who is in this country, but our current immigration system is so irretrievably broken. It's not meeting anyone's needs,” she said.

Rules governing recent immigrants, refugees

Magruder said the goal of the refugee program is “self-sufficiency,” and they have to take the first job offered. They even have to repay their air travel to the U.S.

He said the program is not well-funded, “so we have a lot to do in a very short amount of time, and then we have to let them go, and then we have to turn our attention to the next arrivals.”

For asylum seekers, Boomershine says that they have to wait 180 days to receive a work permit, “which is a very expensive process that does not occur at the border, so before that time, they’re relying on churches, neighbors, and community members to help them. It could be three to five more years before their case comes to court.”

Prohibitions against asking about the immigration status of children in public schools dates back to a federal case, Plyler v. Doe, which was argued in the 1970s.

“It was determined that children K-12 are always allowed to attend a public school. They can't be charged any extra money or any extra fees, and schools are not allowed to ask about their documentation status nor ask for a social security number. So we get a [student] profile, but there are some limitations as to what we talk to the family about,” Pappamihiel said.

Multi-language learners (MLLs) in NHCS

This school year there are 2,438 multi-language learners in New Hanover County Schools; these are students from whom there’s another language spoken in the home besides English.

Does the school district have enough resources to meet the needs of these children? Pappamihiel said no.

“No, we do not have enough translators here. It's a big problem. Federal regulation requires that parents receive information in a language that they can understand," she said.

English language learners are about 11% of the state’s K-12 population — a growing percentage.

“What I'm hearing from teachers is, every month, somebody is telling me, ‘I just got a new [MLL] student, and I'm having to test them and get them going,’” Pappamihiel said.

Boomershine agreed with Pappamihiel, “Our multilingual learner caseload is a little bit higher than it could be, ideally, to meet the needs of the children, whether they were born here and just started school with limited English [...]. It could be weeks to get something translated or to have an interpreter at a meeting. And then some schools can use some funding to hire a bilingual liaison, but those staff members are overworked.”

“Maria Black, who is our liaison, I wish she had more staff because she's been great and very accommodating in helping us,” Magruder added.

While there have been issues with getting more immediate translation services, Magruder said anytime a teacher wants to communicate with a parent who speaks a different language, they can use the language line, but “We find that it's not always happening, and I think it's just because it's a little bit harder and takes a little bit extra time to do that.”

Pappamihiel said for those immigrant students new to the county or even the U.S.: “When they get here, it's not just, ‘Well, let's talk about algebra, or let's talk about science.’ It's, ‘let's talk about you and your family and your culture, and your language needs,’ before we can ever get to those academic discussions.”

Pappamihiel prepares future and current teachers at UNCW to meet these students where they are.

“How do you demonstrate caring to somebody who comes from a different culture and speaks a different language? It's also getting my students to understand their cultural parameters," she said. "How ruled they are by their culture? And then understanding that how do you relate to somebody who does not share that culture?”

Newcomer school?

While NHCS has no plans to open a newcomer school in the immediate future, the discussion over the idea prompted some misgivings over what the program would do.

Some local politicians—and community members during the school board’s public call period—said that this school would attract more refugees.

Magruder responded, “So that logic doesn't apply to the refugee program because we are approved to resettle a certain number. That's not going to go up because a newcomer school opens.”

There's no evidence that's the case for the broader immigrant community. In Guilford County, which has maintained a newcomer school since 2008, educators serve a diverse immigrant community that's grown over decades of refugee resettlement programs dating back to the 1970s. Also, newcomer schools only serve students for a single year — because of federal laws against segregating students — making it less likely that families would relocate themselves for the benefit of one year of services to their child or children.

Aside from concerns about increasing the immigrant population, Magruder noted that there's already a significant population of English-language learners here.

He added, “My understanding, too, is that the school board when they were [hearing about] this proposal, [it] was looking at the reality. I mean, the reality is [paying] attention to the fact that for so many of our students, English is not a first language.”

This is a sentiment reflected by many principals and teachers, especially in lower-performing public schools.

While Boomershine said that a newcomer school could be a good possibility for upper-level grades, the younger ones need to be surrounded by English-speaking peers.

“The older kids may need some pull-out, additional services because the way the classes are set up in high school is more lecture-style. And so getting that intensive English support while also hopefully spending part of their day with their peers would be helpful for them,” she said.

For Pappamihiel, a future newcomer school would meet needs associated with “cultural and linguistic adjustment, giving them a certain level of English proficiency to where they can begin to function in a general education classroom. You are taking some of the pressure off of your general education teachers of doing that immediate triage with the students.”

She compared a newcomer school being an ‘on-ramp’ onto I-40.

“Let's say you have another student who has come from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and there have been years and years of war and trauma that that student is dealing with, maybe their family is separated. Maybe this student came with their mom, but their dad is still in the refugee camp, that student is not focusing on academics, that student is worried about their family so that on-ramp is a little bit longer,” she said.

Magruder said school staff working with newly arrived students hope to be able to work with them when there are cultural misunderstandings.

“That's a more difficult thing, where we see refugee children using language they shouldn't be using in school, or them being teased or made fun of,” he said.

To compound the problem, Pappamihiel said that these MLLs typically go to lower-performing and under-resourced schools – where they don’t have extra support staff to help.

“Holly Tree Elementary School, for example, is a high socio-economic population, very low minority student population, very highly resourced school. That's not where you're going to find English learners, you're going to find them in the schools with the highest needs. So, already, this teacher has an entire classroom of high-needs students. It's almost like we're piling high need upon high need, and it's really difficult and challenging,” she said.

Future of immigrant communities in NHC

For refugees who come to Wilmington, Magruder finds it mainly to be a welcoming community — a place where they can thrive.

“One of our early earliest families bought their first car just a few months ago. That was a huge step forward,” he said.

Boomershine said that this city and county would be challenged if there wasn’t the “work and support of our immigrant and Hispanic neighbors and friends.”

She added, “No one chooses to come to the U.S. and leave behind everything for fun. So everyone here is because they really could not live or support their children, feed their children, or educate their children where they were living. I think that's something that we need to think about.”

For Pappamihiel, it’s time to accept that there is — and will continue to be — an immigrant community in the Cape Fear region.

“It's not like any of these students are going to disappear after graduation. They're going to be in our communities working at a successful job, or not, depending on how well we prepare them,” she said.

The ultimate takeaway on the contributions of immigrants for Afanador is, “So often, they’re statistics or numbers or migrants or illegals, but the bottom line is we're talking about human beings.”

Prior reporting

Rachel is a graduate of UNCW's Master of Public Administration program, specializing in Urban and Regional Policy and Planning. She also received a Master of Education and two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Political Science and French Language & Literature from NC State University. She served as WHQR's News Fellow from 2017-2019. Contact her by email: rkeith@whqr.org or on Twitter @RachelKWHQR