Equity & Diversity

Deportation Fear Grips Latino Students

By Corey Mitchell — September 01, 2020 3 min read
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When President Donald Trump took office in 2017, immigration advocates and school officials braced for the prospect that he would undertake unprecedented immigration enforcement measures that could upend the lives of millions.

Nearly four years later, the nation’s Latino schoolchildren are bearing the mental and psychological brunt of the president’s campaign to curtail immigration: A majority of Latino high school students in two states fear that someone close to them could be arrested and deported, a new Migration Policy Institute study reveals.

More than half the students surveyed in both Rhode Island and Texas, states with vastly different immigration enforcement climates, reported experiencing symptoms of anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder at levels significant enough to warrant treatment. The students who feared immigration enforcement most acutely, and who changed their behaviors to avoid detection as a result, reported the most significant challenges with mental health.

Roughly 1 In 4 high school students in the United States is Latino and the “stakes are high for Latino youth in the current social and political climate, and for the society in which they will grow into adulthood, join the workforce, raise their own families, and take part in civic life,” the study authors wrote.

To support their Latino students, schools in both states took similar steps: ensuring students had access to counseling and therapy services, making public statements in support of students and their families, and amending discipline policies to reduce the potential for interactions with school police officers.

Schools can safeguard the rights and privacy of students who do not have legal immigration status, though they are not guaranteed full protection on campus. In 2018, a Boston high school student was deported after a school police officer shared information about a lunchroom fight with federal immigration officials.

Living in Fear

Researchers from the Migration Policy Institute, the University of Houston, and Rhode Island College analyzed results from a survey of Latino students in Harris, County, Texas, which includes Houston, as well as several Rhode Island cities, examining the links between immigration enforcement and the related fears and mental health of Latino youth enrolled in 11 high schools during the 2018-19 school year.

The findings align with a 2018 national survey from the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, where 4 in 5 educators reported having students who experienced emotional or behavioral problems because they were concerned about stepped-up immigration enforcement.

ICE made more arrests in Harris County in fiscal 2018 than any other U.S. county. Rhode Island, by comparison, has a relatively low level of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, activity and has state policies restricting local law enforcement cooperation with the federal agency.

Overall, one-third of students in the survey feared that ICE agents would come for them, including 12 percent of students born in the United States. Out of fear, nearly as many, 30 percent, reported taking extreme measures to dodge potential deportation, including avoiding driving, going for medical checkups, attending religious services or participating in after-school activities. They took alternative routes to school and stayed home more often.

“While schools’ core mission is one of academic achievement and college or career readiness, students may face a wide range of challenges—from economic hardship to discrimination to fears that a loved one may be deported—that can take a toll on both their well-being and their ability to meet learning goals,” the report authors concluded.

The schools included in the study had majority Latino enrollments. The study authors suggested that further research should examine the mental health of Latino students in schools where they are less concentrated and may encounter more discrimination and less support from educators.

Cooperation between local law enforcement agencies and federal immigration authorities can drive immigrant students and their families from schools. Between 2000 and 2011, a span that includes the Bush and Obama presidential administrations, a 2019 Stanford University study estimates that such partnerships likely uprooted 300,000 Hispanic children from schools.

Photo Credit: In this July 8, 2019, file photo, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officer looks on during an operation in Escondido, Calif. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.