- Associated Press - Friday, July 25, 2014

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - The superintendent of the Lincoln Public Schools says he learned long ago to separate himself from the immigration debate and focus on children.

About 200 unaccompanied minors from Central America are now in Nebraska, and some outraged lawmakers sent a letter to the federal government asking for their names and whereabouts.

Lincoln Superintendent Steve Joel tells The Lincoln Journal Star (http://bit.ly/UrRPOf ) the issue echoes his experience running the Grand Island Public Schools in 2006. About 165 students had relatives who were detained and 25 had two missing parents after a raid at a meatpacking plant.

Joel guaranteed then that the schools would be a safe haven, a decision he’s proud of.

His current district says it’s not aware of any unaccompanied minors, but if they come, Joel says they’ll have the same chance to learn as everyone else.

“When they show up at our schools, we’ll educate them and do whatever we can to help them be successful,” he said.

More than 57,000 unaccompanied children have been apprehended at the U.S. border with Mexico since October. Three-fourths of them are from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, and they say they are fleeing gang violence and poverty. Many communities across the country have been offering to build facilities or take in children until their cases are resolved.

Immigration is a hotly debated topic in Nebraska, the only state to deny driver’s licenses to people brought into the country illegally as children but allowed to stay under an Obama administration program.

For Joel, the debate is a reminder of the chaos in Grand Island after immigration raids at Swift and Co. meatpacking plants in six states. He held a news conference guaranteeing that schools would be a safe haven for students whose parents and relatives had been arrested in the raids. The schools tried to notify students about what was happening without upsetting them. Some schools were turned into shelters.

“We took this position and this is what I’ll forever be proud of, (that) we want our children in school and will do our level best to educate them and we will do whatever we can to keep from having federal officials in our schools,” he said.

Joel was also proud of Grand Island, where he said even people on the other side of the immigration debate stepped up to help the children.

Grand Island schools say about 50 unaccompanied minors were enrolled there last year.

Joanne Garrison, director of the district welcome center established about seven months after the raid, said the district’s philosophy remains the same as it was then, that schools should be safe havens for children and their families.

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Information from: Lincoln Journal Star, http://www.journalstar.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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