Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Minn. town divided over efforts to expand schools because of swelling numbers of immigrants, unaccompanied minors

Washington Post map; click on the image to enlarge it.
Some residents in a small Minnesota town are balking at the recent influx of Central American immigrants, many of them unaccompanied minors. Worthington, Minn., population 13,000, has received more than 400 unaccompanied minors since 2013—almost more per capita than almost anywhere else in the U.S., according to Office of Refugee Resettlement data. The immigrants have increased the student population by almost a third, crowding classrooms and straining resources, Michael Miller reports for The Washington Post.

Since 2013, more than 270,000 unaccompanied minors have been released to relatives across the U.S. to await immigration hearings. And though most of them end up in large cities, the ones who go to small towns have a disproportionate impact on local resources. School districts have had to scramble to hire more teachers who speak Spanish to accommodate such students. "Many unaccompanied minors live with unfamiliar relatives who offer little support. Teachers often fill the void, arriving early, staying late, even buying their students groceries," Miller reports.

"Five times in just over five years, the district has asked residents to approve an expansion of its schools to handle the surge in enrollment. Five times, the voters have refused — the last time by a margin of just 17 votes. A sixth referendum is scheduled for November," Miller reports. "The divide can be felt all over Worthington, where 'Minnesota nice' has devolved into 'Yes' and 'No' window signs, boycotts on businesses and next-door neighbors who no longer speak. A Catholic priest who praised immigrants was booed from the pews and has received death threats."

Don Brink picks up students, some of whom are refugees.
(Photo by Courtney Perry for The Washington Post)
School bus driver Don Brink and a few other white farmers, operating under the name Worthington Citizens for Progress, have organized opposition to school expansion. Brink told Miller: "Those kids had no business leaving home in the first place . . . That’s why we have all these food pantries, because of all these people we are supporting. I have to feed my own kids."

The resistance from Brink and others is a facet of larger dissatisfaction with the changing face of Worthington. The town used to be almost entirely white, but by the year 2000 the population was about 20 percent Hispanic because of workers drawn to area poultry farms and a meatpacking plant. "In 2007, Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested more than 230 undocumented workers at the plant," Miller reports. "Immigrants kept coming, however, mostly from Central America and Southeast Asia. Today the town is almost two-thirds minority. Hispanics outnumber whites."

Because of immigrants, Worthington has grown while others nearby have shrunk, but the town's tax base still mostly depends on white farmers who worry they'll have to pay the lion's share of school expansion efforts. Bond referenda have failed repeatedly, but the schools are still in dire need of improvement, Miller reports. The issue has increasingly divided residents. Many who support school expansion believe the opposition is because of racism, while many who don't support school expansion say their concerns are purely financial, especially since farmers are already hurting from the wet spring and the trade war with China, Miller reports.

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