Marcela García

Embraced in Chelsea

Detainees walk in a line at a US Customs and Border Protection processing facility June 18 in Texas.
Detainees walk in a line at a US Customs and Border Protection processing facility June 18 in Texas.Associated press

Administrators at the Chelsea Public Schools started noticing the phenomenon about a year ago: A growing stream of immigrant students were enrolling, the majority from Central America. Then in January, it became more like a torrent.

In all, Chelsea has enrolled 720 new students since last July, including 285 who came directly from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. That represents an increase of about 250 percent since 2010. The number of students coming straight from Honduras alone has increased 180 percent compared with 2012.

Clearly, the impact of the child immigration crisis has spread well beyond the Texas border, as the children relocate to be with family in the United States or are placed by federal officials. About 57,000 unaccompanied minors have been detained at the border since last October, and immigration officials estimate the number could be as high as 90,000 this fall. In Chelsea, human services agencies determined those 285 children from Central America are part of the surge.


While Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman, a Republican, loudly complained over the weekend about his state having to host some 200 children from the border — and was joined by Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin and other governors who voiced their concerns during last weekend’s National Governors Association meeting — there is a distinct lack of political animus in Chelsea, where the focus is humane integration of the immigrant children. Rather than allow the flood of needy immigrants to become a source of controversy, Chelsea school officials, immigrant advocacy organizations, and other local stakeholders are quietly figuring out how to deal with the influx. The city surely needs more resources, but a philosophy of inclusion in Chelsea’s schools and a strong web of nonprofit support are making the challenge manageable.

Chelsea’s reaction says a lot about its sense of itself. Last month it won a national All-American City award, which, given its diverse population, is well deserved. Chelsea has been a gateway for immigrants for generations; its population is 62 percent Hispanic, with a high percentage of immigrants from Central America. Chelsea is proving that its open-arms approach to immigrants, documented and undocumented, works, so long as the support system is in place for the newcomers.


It’s also vital to have leaders like Mary Bourque, Chelsea’s superintendent of schools, who sees accommodating the new immigrants as an essential part of her job.

“We don’t ask if the kids coming are documented or undocumented. We don’t care,” she said in an interview. “We take politics out of this, because our job is to educate whoever walks over our threshold. We take everyone from where they enter academically, and we move them along with a learning trajectory. That’s our vocation.”

Bourque stressed that the influx is not without its challenges. Sensing that the psychological needs of the new students were more acute, Bourque found money for more social work help, squeezing an already tight budget. She has already hired at least two new social workers and two English immersion teachers. But if the rising-immigration trend continues, she’ll need more money.

“We also need to look to provide English language proficiency classes, close academic gaps through afterschool tutoring and classes, and provide the extra space to do all these things,” Bourque said. At-risk populations are more expensive, she said, but she is clearly undeterred: “That is our job, and we welcome it.”

Worsening criminal conditions in Central America — cartel- and gang-related violence — are pushing people to migrate north. And so it was that Edith, a 26-year-old single mother from La Lima, Honduras, decided about three months ago to make the trek to Chelsea to stay with friends from her hometown, with her 6-year-old daughter Kimberly in tow. It took them 26 days to reach the Mexico-US border, and cost them $6,000. Edith told me the criminal activity was so pervasive in her hometown that gang members were charging people for protection.


She and her daughter were apprehended by border patrol agents, but were processed and released. Finding work has been hard, she said, mainly because of the ankle monitor bracelet she needs to wear so immigration officials can keep track of her. In the meantime, Edith has enrolled Kimberly at an elementary school in Chelsea, hoping both will be allowed to stay. “My court appointment is in October. I’m told an immigration judge will decide whether we get deported or not,” Edith said. “They were very helpful at the school. They said, ‘Your girl needs to be studying.’ She will be going to first grade this fall.”

The difference in Chelsea is that Edith and Kimberly are not political objects; they’re treated not as illegal immigrants but as human beings. Chelsea understands that important piece better than most cities. In part, that’s because of experienced people like Gladys Vega, the fierce executive director of the Chelsea Collaborative, an immigrant advocacy nonprofit organization. Last week, Vega put together a roundtable discussion with community-based organizations, legal service providers, and others to deal with the issue of undocumented minors. Bourque attended the meeting and called it “the best of who we are as a community, working together to help our recent immigrants.”


Marcela García is a regular contributor to the Globe’s opinion pages. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa.