Equity & Diversity

Report: Deportation Fear Grips Immigrant and Refugee Students in U.S. Schools

By Corey Mitchell — November 20, 2018 3 min read
Second grader Zeinab Ahmed watches her classmates play a game in gym class at Discovery Community School in St. Cloud, Minn. The school serves a growing number of Somali students.
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The educational needs of refugee and immigrant students are frequently unmet in the United States and other nations across the globe, a new United Nations report concludes.

“Building Bridges, Not Walls,” a report released Tuesday by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization makes the argument that the current immigration policies of the U.S. government create too many barriers for students who are immigrants or refugees. The report calls for policy changes that would make it easier to integrate these children into schools, increase their access to quality education, and ensure immigrant and refugee families know that schools are safe spaces.

Citing widespread fear and absenteeism in places such as Las Cruces, N.M., and Hamblen County, Tenn., after immigration raids, the report argued that the threat of deportation is a major barrier to immigrant education in the U.S.

Federal law prohibits schools and districts from adopting enrollment policies that deny or discourage children from enrolling because of immigration status, but the issue is affecting children and families across the country.

It’s an issue that Mandy Manning, the 2018 National Teacher of the Year, has wrestled with firsthand. Manning teaches English and math to newly arrived refugee and immigrant students in Spokane, Wash.

During a panel discussion hosted by the Migration Policy Institute on Tuesday to roll out the UNESCO report, Manning shared stories about students approaching her daily to ask when they or their parents will be forced to leave country.

“All of our immigrant, refugee, and asylum-seeking students are fearful,” Manning said. “There’s been a dramatic shift... in how our immigrant students feel ... under the current administration.”

The report outlined several other problems that its authors said are pervasive in U.S. schools, including:

  • Children from non-English-speaking households are often misdiagnosed as having special education needs, partly due to literacy tests that are not made available in their home language.
  • Immigrant parents often do not feel welcome to engage with schools and think they have little say in how their children are treated and taught in schools.
  • Older immigrant students are often placed in special programs, separate from the general population, that increases their likelihood of dropping out of school.

José Viana, the director of the office of English-language acquisition at the U.S. Department of Education was scheduled to participate in the Migration Policy Institute panel discussion, but was unable to attend, organizers said.

The UNESCO report also praised the progress the U.S. has made in protecting immigrant students’ rights under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a program that gives protection to an estimated 700,000 immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally as children. The policy—adopted by the Obama administration—has boosted high school graduation rates for immigrant youth by 15 percent, according to a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research.

But DACA has been in jeopardy since President Donald Trump took office. As part of his hardline stance on immigration, President Trump announced plans to end the program in September 2017, but the future of DACA remains uncertain. Earlier this month, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals blocked the Trump administration from immediately terminating DACA.

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