President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration will lift the threat of deportation for the parents of millions of America’s K-12 students and ease longstanding concerns among educators about separating school-aged children from their caregivers.
The president’s order will offer deportation reprieves and working papers to undocumented parents of children who are either U.S. citizens or have legal residency here and who have lived in the United States for at least five years.
An estimated 5 million undocumented immigrants stand to benefit from the executive action.
The decision has drawn praise from some educators and immigration advocates and scorn from Republicans in Congress who say the president is overstepping his authority.
“Educators know from experience that family unity plays a critical role in student success,” said National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García. “Yet a growing number of public school students live in fear that our nation’s immigration policies will break up their families, forcing them to choose between their country and their loved ones.”
President Obama’s order grants similar status to undocumented residents who were brought to the United States as children, by expanding eligibility for the existing “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” program. The action does not include protections for their parents. It also does not extend any such benefits to the wave of unaccompanied minors, most from Central America, who surged across the U.S.-Mexico border over the past year.
“I have seen the determination of immigrant fathers who worked two or three jobs, without taking a dime from the government, and at risk at any moment of losing it all, just to build a better life for their kids,” President Obama said in his prime time address late last month. “I’ve seen the heartbreak and anxiety of children whose mothers might be taken away from them just because they didn’t have the right papers.”
‘Sense of Security’
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican who’s led the conservative wing of the GOP in opposing immigration reform, called on Congress to “use every tool available to prevent the president from subverting the rule of law.”
In 2012, children with at least one undocumented immigrant parent accounted for nearly 7 percent of U.S. students in kindergarten through 12th grade, according to a Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project report released just before the president’s action was announced. Based on 2012 Census data, that’s more than 3.8 million students.
“There’s a great deal of psychological uncertainty that makes it very hard for [those] students to fully feel secure,” said Claire Sylvan, the executive director of the Internationals Network for Public Schools, a network of 17 high schools around the country that serve newly-arrived immigrants and English-language learners.
“If this alleviates that situation, it’s going to create a sense of security for families that will allow students to focus on their schoolwork” instead of worrying their parents or other family members might be deported, she added.
The Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank, estimates that President Obama’s executive action will lift the threat of deportation for as many as 3.7 million undocumented immigrants who are parents of U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents.
President Obama traveled to Del Sol High School in Las Vegas late last month to rally support for his executive action in a state where nearly 18 percent of all K-12 students have at least one parent who is undocumented, the Pew report found. Del Sol High is the same place he launched his push for immigration reform in January 2013 by calling on Congress to pass comprehensive legislation.
Within five months of that speech, the Democratic-controlled Senate passed a sweeping overhaul to the country’s immigration laws, garnering votes from 14 Republicans. But the Republican-led House never took up the proposal, largely due to a small but vocal group of conservatives within the GOP caucus who oppose a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
The president’s orders have limitations, said members of a San Francisco-based group known as Educators for Fair Consideration, or E4FC, which works to support undocumented students.
“This announcement is not a permanent solution, we’re not really sure what will happen after President Obama leaves office,” said Jazmin Segura, E4FC’s policy and communications manager. “There’s a lot of anxiety and uncertainty that will remain in the community.”
Katharine Gin, a co-founder and the executive director of E4FC, said she urges educators to provide information about the reforms to immigrant youth so they know their own options, as well as options for their family members, and to help them access reputable legal advisers.
“It’s important to emphasize how essential educators will be in this process,” she said. “It is our hope that educators around the country will see the enormous potential they have.”
Along with Nevada, California, Texas, and Arizona are among the states with large shares of undocumented immigrant parents, the Pew study found.
In a precursor to President Obama’s executive action, the U.S. departments of Justice and Education sent guidance to districts across the nation this past spring, reminding public schools that they are required to provide all children with equal access to education at the elementary and secondary levels, regardless of their own, or their parents’ or guardians’ citizenship or immigration status.
Staff Writer Lauren Camera and Editorial Intern Madeline Will contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the December 03, 2014 edition of Education Week as Obama Grants Deportation Relief to Immigrant Parents