By Garance Burke and Adrian Sainz
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Candelario Jimon Alonzo came to the U.S. dreaming of becoming something more than what seemed possible along the rutted roads of his hometown in Guatemala's highlands. This was his chance: He could earn a U.S. high school education and eventually become a teacher.
Instead, the 16-year-old spends most days alone in the tumbledown Memphis house where he lives with his uncle, leaving only occasionally to play soccer and pick up what English he can from his friends.
Local school officials have kept Jimon out of the classroom since he tried to enroll in January. Attorneys say Jimon and at least a dozen other migrant youth fleeing violence in Central America have been blocked from going to Memphis high schools because officials contend the teens lacked transcripts or were too old to graduate on time.
The Associated Press has found that in at least 35 districts in 14 states, hundreds of unaccompanied minors from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have been discouraged from enrolling in schools or pressured into what advocates and attorneys argue are separate but unequal alternative programs — essentially an academic dead end, and one that can violate federal law.
Instead of enrolling Jimon and the other minors in high school, their cash-strapped district routed them to an adult school in East Memphis that offered English classes a few hours a week. But before Jimon could even register, the state shut the GED and English-language programs over concerns that few students were graduating, effectively ending his chances for a formal education.
"I really wanted to study math and English when I got here," said Jimon, who grew up speaking Spanish and the indigenous language Quiche. The teen is in the process of applying for permission to stay in the country permanently.
Shelby County Schools spokeswoman Natalia Powers said her sprawling district had a policy that allowed students 16 and older to choose to enroll in a GED program, and that once the program closed, students could continue studying in a "similar" program at a local nonprofit. But attorneys and advocates said their clients weren't given the choice to attend a mainstream high school, and that the Memphis nonprofit did not teach English.
America's schools remain one of the few government institutions where migrant youth 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.
Since fall 2013, the federal government has placed nearly 104,000 unaccompanied minors with adult sponsors in communities nationwide, where they are expected to attend school while they seek legal status in immigration court. Months later, during the dramatic surge of illegal crossings at the border, 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.
For students learning English, guidance says school districts must provide appropriate language assistance services so students can participate equally in the standard instructional program within a reasonable period of time.
Districts found to have broken the law can be forced to change their enrollment policies, but making that happen is not easy. To start, few migrant children understand their rights.
Students and their advocates can sue districts or file complaints with the Education or Justice departments, but investigations are backlogged and typically result in civil sanctions, said Lisa Carmona, senior attorney with the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center.
Many local school districts have stretched to find the resources and staff to meet the educational needs of these students, who often carry emotional trauma, have gaps in their education and are older than other English-language learners.
To determine where that was not happening, the AP analyzed federal data to identify areas where the number of migrant children was relatively large when compared to public school enrollment, along with the number of students formally learning English.
In Alabama, California, Florida, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas and South Carolina, social workers and attorneys told AP that migrant students have been barred from enrolling, kept out of class for months due or routed to reform schools and adult programs. The full extent of how the Central American minors are faring in schools is unknown because the government does not release data on counties where fewer than 50 minors have been placed, which means information was not provided for about 25,000 of the migrants.
Spokeswomen for the Education and Justice departments would not say how many of the nation's roughly 14,000 school districts have been investigated for such failures.
"We remain committed to working with federal partners and community-based organizations to address any issues that unaccompanied children . may face in dealing with the education system," Education spokeswoman Dorie Nolt said.
All children must attend school until at least the eighth grade or until they turn 16 under compulsory education laws in all 50 states. Students can enroll beyond that age in many states.
Some districts have gone to extraordinary lengths to accommodate the students, who often come to join relatives, sometimes escaping criminal gangs or extreme poverty. One district in rural Kansas rerouted a school bus to ensure a group of unaccompanied teens made it to class. A San Francisco high school rewrote young-adult novels at a basic level to spark the newcomers' interest in reading.
In March 2015, federal officials made $14 million in grants available for county school districts where the government placed more than 50 unaccompanied minors. But that amounts to less than $175 for each unaccompanied child placed in those counties since October 2013, which many districts say leaves them to cover too much of the cost.
The AP National Investigative Team can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Burke reported from San Mateo, California. AP data journalist Larry Fenn in New York contributed to this report.