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Equity & Diversity

What’s the Cost of Educating Children of the Undocumented?

By Mary Ann Zehr — July 07, 2010 3 min read
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An organization that seeks to halt illegal immigration to this country has put out a report saying that educating the children of undocumented immigrants costs $52 billion and is the largest public expense for providing services to families with undocumented adults. The report says that the lion’s share of that cost is absorbed by state and local governments.

The Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, says in its July 6 report, “The Fiscal Burden of Illegal Immigration on the United States Taxpayers,” that services to the families of undocumented immigrants in this country—including education, health care, welfare, and the expense of deporting foreigners—cost $113 billion.

The Immigration Policy Center, the research and policy arm of the Washington-based American Immigration Council, put out a statement saying the report was “highly misleading” because FAIR “completely discounts the economic contributions of unauthorized workers and consumers.”

I wanted to understand, however, how on target the report might be in its statement that it costs state and local governments $49.4 billion to provide schooling for the children of undocumented immigrants. I checked the FAIR statements with statistics from Jeffrey S. Passel, a senior demographer at the Washington-based Pew Hispanic Center.

The FAIR report estimates that U.S. schools enroll about 3.5 million children of undocumented immigrants, including both U.S.-born children and foreign-born children. Passel puts that number at about 3.4 million. As of 2008, he said, 1.3 million immigrant children in schools had a parent who was undocumented. The same was true for 2.1 million U.S.-born children.

FAIR multiplies the 3.5 million statistic times the average per-pupil expenditure in states to come up with its estimate that state and local governments spend $40.9 billion to provide a regular education to the children of undocumented children. FAIR also estimates that state and local governments pay $244 million to pay for tuition subsidies for children of undocumented immigrants at colleges and universities.

But what’s particularly interesting for readers of this blog, I think, is that FAIR also estimates the cost to state and local governments of providing English-acquisition services to the children of undocumented children above and beyond providing a regular education, which the organization puts at $8.3 billion. To come up with $8.3 billion, FAIR estimated the amount each state spends on English-language-acquisition services by multiplying the number of ELLs in that state times a dollar amount that equals one-fourth of the average per-pupil spending in the state (with a few exceptions). Then it added up all the state figures to come up with the national figure of $8.3 billion.

In that section of the report, FAIR seems to be off base. That’s because it says it calculates cost according to a premise that “most often, although not exclusively” English-language learners are the children of undocumented immigrants. FAIR doesn’t provide any data to back up that premise.

Passel doesn’t have statistics that answer the question directly of what proportion of English-language learners have at least one undocumented parent. But he did give me some information that raises questions about FAIR’s claim.

Passel says that slightly fewer than half of immigrant children in U.S. schools, those who were born in another country and then moved to this country and attend school here, have at least one undocumented parent. Of 2.7 million children ages 6 to 17 who are immigrants themselves, 1.3 million have at least one undocumented parent, he said. And only about a quarter of the 8 million children ages 6 to 17 who have immigrant parents and were born in the United States have at least one undocumented parent, Passel says.

Since most English-language learners are either immigrants themselves or the U.S.-born children of immigrants (based on a chart on page 15 of Quality Counts 2009), FAIR’s contention that “most often, although not exclusively” ELLs are the children of undocumented parents cannot be correct.

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