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06.12.2020

Working with Unaccompanied Minors

By José Meza, Senior Education Specialist

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For many of the young people that I work with, their stories did not start here in Washington. They started in far away countries. At a very young age, they took a long and treacherous journey to seek a better life in the United States, entering the country without adult guardians. Authorities place them into a version of our country’s foster care system as unaccompanied minors. This system moves them into communities across the country where they live, work and attend school. For those living in our community, they may qualify to work with a Treehouse Education Specialist such as myself.

In many ways, these young people are very similar to the other Treehouse youth. I have one student that has come a long way since we first met. He was always very stern and serious, not so different from myself. Like many of my students, he would open up a little more every time we met. Until one day he told me: “I’m thinking about making a music video.” He then showed me this video of himself rapping in Spanish. It was really unexpected and also exciting to see him open up in that way.

In other ways, these young people have unique needs. They are not eligible for many of the resources provided by our state’s foster care system. If they are able to start school in this country, they enter a brand new world with a different language and culture. Beyond maybe other youth in their home, they really don’t know anyone. With the added complexities of legal status and the immigration court systems, they face extraordinary uncertainty and adversity that are impossible to imagine.

As a Treehouse Education Specialist, my colleagues and I work to get them accustomed to their school environments. Meeting weekly, we develop relationships, work with them on setting goals and creating incentive plans. At these meetings, I often have been asked why school should matter to them. They have a legitimate fear that immigration officials may pick them up at any moment and put an end to their futures in this country. That fear continues to grow as increased restrictions during the pandemic lead to even more deportations. Understandably, youth in these situations put a higher priority on finding work than they do studying, so they can send money back to their families for as long as they can.

As their education specialist, all I can do is encourage them to take advantage of the opportunities they have while they have them and emphasize the power of education to open doors. If they spend their time learning English and math, these skills can offer them opportunity—regardless how their circumstances turn out. We present options to them, but ultimately, they make all of the decisions.

The challenges and uncertainties that unaccompanied minors face are exacerbated by the pandemic. For some students, their plans to graduate have been derailed. For others, the opportunity to work has diminished and become more dangerous. During the last four years, I have had the privilege to build relationships with these incredible young people. I have seen firsthand their grit and aspirations to graduate high school, go to college and become successful adults. We must learn more collectively about the unique barriers they face. Then, we can better leverage our community’s resources and expand eligibility for essential services to provide unaccompanied minors with the opportunities they equally deserve.

Visit our Take Action page to learn how you can support Treehouse.

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About the Author

José Meza is a Senior Education Specialist on the King County Graduation Success team, primarily working in the Renton School District. He partners with students of different backgrounds to support them in their goal to graduate from high school or obtain a GED as they create a successful plan that will launch them successfully into adulthood.


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