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Immigrant Students in Our Classrooms: "Always Scared"

A recent report, Legal Violence in the Lives of Immigrants, from the Center from American Progress, written by Cecilia Menjivar and Leisy Abrego, documents the impact of law enforcement directed at our nation's eleven million undocumented immigrants.

First, the brutal facts. Nearly 400,000 people a year have been deported since 2009. States like Arizona and Alabama have passed harsh laws that require local law enforcement officers to crack down on anyone whose status might be questionable. The "Secure Communities" program allows participating county jails to check the immigration status of anyone that enters. If you are in this country without documentation, you live in a state of constant fear.

The US is now spending $18 billion a year enforcing immigration laws - more than other federal law enforcement combined.

There are sixteen million people living in families that include someone without documents. Many of these are our students. These families live in fear which invades our schools, as described in the report:

Within the school, legal violence makes young people and their families fear schools as a place where family members may be detained. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers in October 2012, for example, detained parents after they dropped their children off at two Detroit-area schools. Other students underperform or exit school early based on fears of detention or the knowledge that without legal status, higher education and a good job are inaccessible.

The report shares how this climate of fear affects the way students experience education.


Afraid of being apprehended and separated, families avoid interacting with officials in social service agencies, even when this means denying children the social, medical, and educational services they need and are entitled to. In the process, children learn to be fearful of authorities who may, at any moment during a regular activity such as attending school, separate them from their families or send them to a country they do not remember or simply do not know.

One student interviewed was Jorge, a Salvadoran college student in Los Angeles. He recalled being scared in high school:


There would be fights and the cops would come and I would stay away, but I would think, "What if immigration comes and tries to find those of us who don't have a social security [number]?" ... you try to go through your day like nothing, but in the back of your head, you're always scared.

And how does this affect their relationship to school? The report explains:

...many undocumented youth only first learn of their status in high school, when they have to fill out applications for internships, summer jobs, or college admission. Unable to provide a Social Security number for the applications, their parents are forced to explain the situation to them, often for the first time. By the time they learn they are undocumented, many have been socialized in the United States where, having had legal access to schools, they develop a strong sense of belonging. This finding parallels a study of undocumented youth in Los Angeles, where the realization of their undocumented status affected the youth physically, emotionally, and biologically, stunting their development.

So here we are in our classrooms, plastered with the posters and banners from universities, leading cheering sessions for our students that tell them the whole purpose of our work is to get them ready for college, without which their future is hopeless, and they go home to parents who shake their heads and say, "sorry Carlos. That is not for you. We don't have the right papers."

The NEA Today drew attention to this report, and their story notes that


While the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Plyler v. Doe granted undocumented and U.S. born immigrant students the right to attend schools with their peers, the push to enforce hard-line immigration laws marginalizes these students into a separate category than their peers. Even with the same school resources available to them, students with undocumented legal statuses are confined to a narrow set of opportunities school.

And it must be noted that some in the "No Excuses" reform movement have been cheering on some of the nation's harshest leaders on immigration issues.

In the most recent election, 90 of the 105 candidates Michelle Rhee's StudentsFirst lobby supported were Republicans. Most of those within the GOP have been pushing for stricter enforcement of immigration laws.

I am not the first one to notice the incongruity of a group that claims to be an advocate for all students helping elect legislators bent on removing access to higher education for many of them. Last summer, after StudentsFirst named a state senator from Georgia named Chip Rogers as the "education reformer of the year," immigrant advocacy groups protested, pointing out that Senator Rogers had sponsored legislation cutting off all state services to undocumented immigrants, and his web site boasts of his accomplishments in this area.

I participated in a StudentsFirst press conference by phone on Monday, and asked representatives if they were at all concerned that supporting so many Republicans, who largely favor harsh treatment of immigrants, might work against the interest of these students. They replied that while they supported the Dream Act, the treatment of immigrants was not on the list of issues they considered when making their endorsements.

This report makes it clear that the fabric of our society is harmed when a group is singled out for this sort of treatment. We would be far better off if immigrants were integrated into our economy and society. The report concludes with a number of recommendations, including these related to education:

  • The government should ensure that the right to K-12 education regardless of immigration status, enshrined in the 1982 Plyler v. Doe decision, is neither watered down nor legislated away.
  • The government should also ensure that schools are safe places, free of Immigration and Customs Enforcement intrusion. Parents must not fear that they could be detained or deported for bringing their children to school.
  • Finally, Congress should support legislative changes that can give undocumented students who want to pursue higher educational degrees access to in- state tuition and the opportunity to apply for financial aid.

Within our schools and classrooms we need to be highly sensitive to this climate of fear. Something as simple as a phone call to a student's home could trigger all sorts of fear within a family already living on this edge. We also need to be aware that while we pursue high aspirations for all of our students, their circumstances may prevent them from taking advantage of the rights and opportunities we take for granted. This could be one of the factors driving high dropout rates for Latino students.

I am glad to see the NEA reporting on this important area, and hope other professional and educational organizations take up these issues as well. This once again demonstrates that demography can indeed be destiny, if we do not confront the very real inequities in society.

What do you think? Have you seen evidence of fear on the part of immigrant students? How have you responded?

Continue the dialogue with me on Twitter at @AnthonyCody

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