New evidence has emerged that cooperation between local law-enforcement officials and federal immigration authorities can drive immigrant students and their families from schools.
Such voluntary partnerships between the federal government and 55 jurisdictions may have uprooted 300,000 Hispanic children from their schools between 2000 and 2011, according to a Stanford University study released last month.
As the counties that worked with federal immigration agents ramped up enforcement, families with at least one undocumented member fled. Hispanic enrollment in those counties dropped by an average of almost 8 percent within two years of the agreements being adopted, the researchers determined. The study was commissioned by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Amid concerns from educators that the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown is depressing student attendance and morale for those who are in immigrant families, school systems are reluctant to tie recent declines to fear of deportation or family separation because they don’t know the immigration status of students or their family members.
All the signs are there though, researchers say.
Whether those families fled the country or relocate to so-called sanctuary cities and states that shield undocumented immigrants remains to be seen.
“One could hypothesize that people would move from the areas where there’s a lot of [law-enforcement] cooperation to the places that are sanctuaries,” said Randy Capps, the Migration Policy Institute’s director of research for U.S. programs.
“But there’s this kind of general feeling that nowhere is safe in the U.S. right now because it’s the Trump administration.”
‘In the Shadows’
Federal law prohibits schools and districts from adopting policies that deny or discourage children from enrolling because of immigration status, but what happens off school grounds often affects what happens on school grounds.
In the 55 counties where local police departments signed up for partnerships with Immigration and Customs Enforcement—the shorthand for the federal immigration agency—officers were trained to act as immigration agents.
According to the Stanford study, the decline in Hispanic students in those counties didn’t start until after the agreements were implemented.
Lead researcher Thomas Dee and his team used National Center for Education Statistics data to document the departures, but the data did not allow them to track where the students ended up. An overwhelming number of the children who left those jurisdictions were American citizens enrolled in elementary schools, Dee said.
“Part of what motivated this study is how hard it is to study demographic impact among a population that often lives in the shadows,” he said. “Districts have high-powered incentives to capture everyone in their enrollment accounts, and undocumented residents don’t have a disincentive to be included in those accounts the way they might in a very individually focused survey.”
While Dee acknowledges that some of the families returned to Mexico or Central America, most probably moved to other parts of the United States “that don’t have these harmful ICE partnerships,” he said. According to the study, the aggressive ICE strategies may contribute to increased dropout risk and lower achievement for Hispanic students.
The number of non-Hispanic students in the districts didn’t change during the time period the research covered, and enrollment wasn’t affected in similar counties where local officials applied for ICE agreements but were not accepted.
There were also no apparent benefits for the counties that lost students. Student-teacher ratios and the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches remained relatively unchanged, the study found.
In similar counties that did not enter into partnerships with ICE, Hispanic enrollment held steady.
In districts with heavily Hispanic populations, such as Houston and San Antonio, administrators didn’t tie slightly declining enrollment numbers in the last couple of years to Trump administration policies. According to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, there are now nearly 80 jurisdictions that partner with ICE.
Schools as Sanctuaries
There are concerns, though, that the threat of raids is affecting enrollment and attendance. In Houston, the city’s police chief urged Hispanic families to get their children to class at the start of the school year, reassuring them that ICE wouldn’t arrest children or parents on campus. Harris County, where Houston is located, ended its partnership with ICE in February 2017 over concerns about immigration detention.
In California, where all public schools are “safe zones” and state law restricts the ability of local police to detain people on behalf of federal immigration agents, school leaders don’t yet know what to make of enrollment swings.
“Decline in enrollment could be attributed to a myriad of reasons including a change in demographics; our school communities are facing increased gentrification and costs of living, homelessness, community violence, trauma, and other mental-health issues,” Shannon Harber, the chief communications officer of the Los Angeles Unified schools, said in a statement.
In Las Cruces, New Mexico, a city about 50 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, educators are grappling with how to support immigrant families.
Like others, administrators in the 25,000-student district will not attribute any recent enrollment declines to immigrants’ fear. But they acknowledge the pressure families are facing.
“We can’t quantify numbers, but I do know that a lot of our families … this is a rough time for them, given the climate that we have as a nation,” said Robert Lozano, the deputy superintendent for equity, innovation, and social justice.
After President Trump’s election, leaders in many school systems, including Las Cruces, took high-profile public stances to declare that federal agents cannot come to schools to arrest or even question students or families about their immigration status unless they produce a warrant, subpoena, or similar court order.
Now, educators are working to keep immigrant students not only safe, but also engaged in and motivated about their education.
“As a school district, we’re not here to enforce any type of immigration law,” said Lozano.
“We’re here to educate students, and that’s our primary job, and that’s what we’re going to stick to.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 31, 2018 edition of Education Week as Latino Enrollment Shrank Where Police Worked With ICE