Texas school district grapples with refugee influx, 75 student languages

Victor Skinner, EagNews.org 

AMARILLO, Texas – Amarillo Mayor Paul Harpole wants state lawmakers to know his city has more than its fair share of refugees, as evidenced by the dozens of different languages spoken in Amarillo schools.

“We have 14 different refugee languages that we report to the state,” Christina Ritter, ESL Program Supervisor for the Amarillo Independent School District, told the Amarillo Globe-News.

Ritter said with all dialects considered, “We have 75 different spoken languages in our schools.”

The myriad of different languages of refugees flooding into the city’s schools puts a massive financial burden on the district to educate the students and quickly meet federal mandates.

“There’s no way,” Harpole told state lawmakers in a Senate committee hearing on refugee resettlement programs last week, according to the news site. “Think you can take a child that’s never set foot in the school, he’s at fifth-grade level, he’s never seen the inside of the school, and get him to grade level in one or three years? It’s insanity.”

Harpole’s testimony comes after intense criticism of federal refugee programs that have made the North Texas town home to the more refugees per 100,000 residents than any other city in America, a fact the mayor highlighted last week.

amarillo_small Texas school district grapples with refugee influx, 75 student languages

Cities with similar populations take in between 65 and 90 refugees a year, while in Amarillo “we get about 500 a year,” he said.

The mayor told Watchdog.org in January that the overloading is creating refugee ghettos.

“We’ve been a giving community, and it’s a huge disservice to bring in refugees in numbers that we’re not able to handle. We create small ghettos,” Harpole said.

“A group of Somalis came in to say they had elected a mayor of their community,” Harpole told the news site. “Then another faction claimed they had their own leader. We come to find out that rival tribes — slaves and masters — were being settled together.”

The refugee resettlement problems are tied to a bigger struggle centered on the federal government’s quest to place Syrian refugees in Texas.

“Federal law requires the Obama administration to work with Texas in the refugee resettling process,” Katherine Wise, spokeswoman for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, told Watchdog.org. “The response by the Obama administration makes it clear that it has no intention of cooperating with us.”

In Amarillo, city officials are considering ways to halt further refugee resettlements as local residents grow increasingly frustrated with the situation.

“We have 660 (refugee) kids who don’t speak English and the U.S. Department of Education says they have to be at grade level within one year. It’s a ludicrous requirement — they don’t even know how to use the bathroom,” Harpole said.

“Our education system is overloaded with kids who can’t speak English,” local resident William Sumerford told Watchdog in January. “Hospitals, welfare, police, you name it, are strained. That all comes back on our city budget.”

Data provided to the Globe-News by the Amarillo Independent School District shows there is currently a total of 1,388 refugee students enrolled in district schools.