English Learners

The Struggles Undocumented Immigrants Face at High School Graduation

By Corey Mitchell — June 10, 2016 2 min read
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In the past week, two Texas high school valedictorians—Larissa Martinez and Mayte Lara Ibarra —have announced they are undocumented immigrants.

They’re among the estimated 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from American high schools each year. Unlike Martinez and Ibarra, most of them aren’t valedictorians. Some are still struggling to map out their futures and learn English.

My colleague Denisa Superville profiled Katherine and Kenia, two unaccompanied minors from Honduras who are set to graduate from high school in Charlotte, N.C. Education Week withheld the students’ last names at their request because of their immigration status.

“The majority of unaccompanied minors who enrolled are still in school, but a growing number are graduating,” Denisa wrote. “Such students are largely still undocumented, meaning that they cannot legally hold jobs or qualify for in-state tuition at many state colleges. Some are still mastering English and will need tutoring after graduation.”

The Honduran immigrants she profiled have come of age during a moment in history when racial and ethnic tensions have flared on many K-12 campuses.

The valedictorians, Martinez and Ibarra, have faced deportation threats.

As a prank, seniors at a North Carolina high school built a wall made of boxes and blocked access to a common area. They shared a photo on social media captioned, “We built the wall first.” It was a nod to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s pledge to stop illegal immigration on the United States’ southern border by building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico.

Racial tensions have flared in St. Cloud, Minn., where enrollment of Somali, and mostly Muslim, students has skyrocketed in the past decade.

“Many students worry about being deported,” wrote the authors of a recent report from the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Teachers have noted an increase in bullying, harassment, and intimidation of students whose races, religions, or nationalities have been the verbal targets of candidates on the campaign trail.”

Martinez is headed to Yale and Ibarra is headed to the University of Texas at Austin. But as Denisa’s story illustrates, high school graduation will mark the end of stability for many undocumented students.

“With graduation approaching, Katherine and Kenia both have post-high-school plans,” she wrote. “They both know that achieving them will be difficult given that they are still undocumented and are working to improve their English.”

Here’s a link to a forum hosted by the Albert Shanker Institute and American Federation of Teachers this week on educating English-language learners.

Photo credit: Kenia, who came to the United States from Honduras, participates in a graduation award ceremony at her Charlotte, N.C., high school. -- Chris Keane for Education Week

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