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Understanding and Addressing the Consequences of Immigration Policies for Students and Educators

By Guest Blogger — December 06, 2019 5 min read
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Taking over the blog this week is Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Before academe, Carolyn worked on secondary schools at the New York City Department of Education. Her research on topics like high school admissions and educational access has been featured in popular outlets like The New York Times and HuffPost, and she is the author of the terrific book Unaccompanied Minors. This week, Carolyn will be writing about her research on how transportation policies influence the equity potential of school choice programs and her take on how immigration enforcement and xenophobia in U.S. schools could have educational implications.

This blog was co-authored by Carolyn and Jacob Kirksey, a Ph.D. candidate at UC Santa Barbara. Prior to graduate school, Jacob taught theater arts in schools in the Pikes Peak Region of Colorado as an AmeriCorps member. His research is concerned with promoting equitable outcomes in schools by drawing attention to unintended consequences in education policy.

After taking office, President Donald Trump immediately took steps to fulfill campaign promises of tougher immigration enforcement. First, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) abandoned prosecutorial discretion, an approach adopted by the Obama administration that prioritized deportation of individuals who posed risks to national security or public safety and considered U.S. family ties. DHS also reinstated the Secure Communities policy, which requires local and state law-enforcement agencies to submit fingerprints of those in custody to their database to check against outstanding deportation orders. These changes increased immigration arrests and heightened deportation fears among immigrant families. They have also impacted what happens inside of schools.

In Las Cruces, N.M., for example, attendance dropped by nearly 2,000 students in the days following raids by ICE agents in March 2017. In other instances, undocumented immigrant parents were detained en route to dropping their children off at school. ICE also conducted raids in the middle of state testing in Tennessee and during the first week of school in Mississippi, seriously disrupting students’ and educators’ lives.

Questions about how deportations affect students in school have never been more timely. With roughly 675,000 children under the age of 18 living in the U.S. without formal legal status and another 5 million living with at least one undocumented immigrant parent (approximately 7 percent of all children enrolled in public and private K-12 schools in the U.S.), schools have been thrust into the center of conversations about the consequences of dysfunctional immigration policies for young people.

Researchers have identified direct relationships between immigration enforcement and food insecurity, material hardship, and housing foreclosures for immigrant families. In terms of educational impacts, likely undocumented students have a greater probability of repeating a grade and dropping out of school with increases in immigration enforcement.

Students directly experiencing the consequences of harsh immigration policies interact with their peers in school, which means that the educational impacts of immigration enforcement could extend to U.S.-born children as well. For example, the local adoption of immigration-enforcement policies such as Secure Communities and 287(g) agreements negatively impacts some students’ performance on standardized tests and increases Latinx students’ mobility away from districts with local partnerships with ICE.

In our own work, we explored how deportations and their proximity to schools relate to student absenteeism. In a 2018 study, we examined whether rises in deportations related to increases in absenteeism for a nationally representative cohort of young children in their kindergarten, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade school years from 2010 to 2013. We were surprised to find that an increase in the number of deportations in a child’s nearest immigration-enforcement jurisdiction was associated with a decrease in absenteeism for first- and second-generation immigrant students. We hypothesize that families may have viewed schools as safe spaces for their young children during this period in which immigration-enforcement policies under President Barack Obama were guided by humanitarian concerns such as family ties in the U.S.

In a different study, we looked at how deportations related to absenteeism for secondary school students across the country during the years 2009-2015. We examined racial/ethnic gaps in chronic absenteeism in every publicly funded school district within 100 miles of a deportation. We found that gaps in white and Latinx students’ rates of chronic absenteeism were larger when more deportations occurred within 25 miles of a school district. (We also found larger gaps in math achievement).

Yet neither study examined immigration enforcement under the current administration. To supplement those national studies, we analyzed data from one California secondary school district in years prior and during the Trump administration and collected our own data on the number of incidents that involved immigration arrests occurring in nearby communities. Our analyses showed that each ICE raid in the residential areas of the school district caused spikes in absenteeism in the weeks following the raid. This was observed for every student in the district’s high schools, not just immigrant-origin students, and the relationship was strongest in the 2016-17 school year—the first year when ICE operated under the Trump administration.

Together, an emerging body of scholarship has begun to establish the wide-ranging implications of severe immigration policies and enforcement approaches for young people. One groundbreaking survey of educators in 730 schools across the country documented widespread reports of trauma, low levels of educational engagement, and negative mental-health effects for students and school personnel. However, our knowledge of how teachers and leaders are prepared to face the realities of anti-immigrant policies and actions remains limited.

To fill this gap, researchers should work with educators to identify the resources and professional development that school-based personnel say they need to effectively respond to the current conditions. More research is also needed to develop interventions that can support students and help educators meet the demands of these troubling times. Finally, schools of education should consider expanding their preservice education courses to include instruction that will equip teachers and school leaders with the requisite skills and knowledge to be able to compassionately and competently navigate the difficult circumstances they may encounter related to students’ and families’ immigration status and anti-immigrant policies.

Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj & Jacob Kirksey

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.