As a senior in high school in Arizona, Pooja Dhupati recalls learning about the influx of children from Central America enrolling in United States public schools.
“The schools were figuring out what to do with them,” said Dhupati, a senior majoring in sociology and public health. “Also, Arizona is a very conservative state, so it didn’t always have the kindest narrative about that.”
According to the Los Angeles Times, the nation has experienced waves of more than 100,000 immigrants from Central America in the past five years. Most of these refugees are unaccompanied minors who encounter language, cultural and financial barriers.
Dhupati is the president of the Community Health Connection, an organization founded at USC two years ago. The organization connects marginalized communities with partners who provide food and health services, or overall aid for them to better adapt to environments that can seem foreign or even hostile.
According to Dhupati, the organization hosts health fairs at local schools that connect families with various advocacy nonprofits, legal aid groups, immigrant rights coalitions and community clinics. Some of these organizations include Planned Parenthood, California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance and Dignity Health California Hospital Medical Center.
These organizations and clinics have extensive experience serving vulnerable populations in Los Angeles, and many immigrant families and minors encounter barriers accessing these resources, Dhupati said.
“There are so many reasons these communities and mixed-status families are scared to go to the doctor and I thought, ‘What if this kid got a cold or something? His schedule is already so tight,’” Dhupati said. “Health is the foundation [to] all of this. To be able to focus on your education, you should first need to have health for any of this to happen.”
According to Dhupati, the Community Health Connection is currently partnered with six high schools throughout the Los Angeles area.
Dhupati said Belmont High School is one of the more active institutions that have gained a reputation for welcoming immigrant enrollment. According to the Los Angeles Times, one in four students from Belmont High School are Central American minors who escaped from social and political upheavals in Central America. This surge of young refugees has forced educational institutions within the Los Angeles community to reimagine the role of schools and administrations in students’ lives, Belmont principal Elsa Mendoza said.
“Historically, Belmont High School, being in the middle of downtown Los Angeles, has seen many of these families and children come to settle in this area and enroll in our school,” she said. “[We] provide them English language classes so that they are learning the language. They are getting additional support in their core content classes, along with coaching from the teachers.”
According to Mendoza, many immigrant students have to maintain a delicate balance of working long hours and meeting academic requirements. On top of work and school responsibilities, they also battle the emotional strain.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been updated for clarity.