Undocumented Immigrant Students
This paper presents an illustration of the positive and negative impacts on school systems that children of undocumented immigrants present as unwitting components (and, sometimes, victims) of the complex issue of immigration. Second, this paper attempts to separate the politics of the issue from the welfare of the students, assessing the advantages, disadvantages, and performance of children of undocumented immigrants while enrolled in public schools. Within this framework, the reader gains an interesting perspective on an important if underreported part of the enormous and extremely complex issue of immigration in the twenty-first-century United States.
Keywords English as a Second Language; No Child Left Behind; Plyler v. Doe; Public School; Student Performance; Undocumented Immigrant
Countless world events and trends have caused significant increases in emigration and immigration throughout the world. War, civil conflict, natural disasters, poverty, famines, and (innocuously enough) the opportunity for better jobs have sent countless individuals and their families in search of a new life in a neighboring or distant nation.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the United States, a nation founded by immigrants, found itself in a conflicted policy situation. On one hand, a steady influx of German, Irish, and southern European immigrants filled previously vacant factory jobs, fueling a fragile pre-Depression American economy. On the other hand, the increase in foreign workers (and their families) was seen as a threat to legal residents' way of life. The policy response from legislators was to create quotas on immigration. In 1921, Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act, severely curtailing the number of immigrants allowed into the country each year. Three years later, deeming the 1921 law too lenient, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924. Nearly 500,000 immigrants were denied entry into the US each year thereafter, although 150,000 to 200,000 northern and western European aliens continued to enter the country at the same time .
Although repeated attempts have been made throughout modern US history to curtail immigration and, in particular, illegal immigration, the number of those who seek to experience the American dream by leaving their home countries continues to rise. According to the Center for Immigration Studies, there were about 40 million immigrants in the country in 2010, and an estimated 28 percent of those (over 11 million) were here illegally (Camarota, 2012).
With millions of undocumented immigrants, it comes as no surprise that this issue has become such a sensitive and yet salient one for nearly every facet of the American political economy. Reforming current immigration laws to govern those illegal migrants who are already in the country, as well as stemming the tide of those who seek to cross US borders, remains just as pivotal in the twenty-first century among political aspirants as it was nearly a hundred years ago.
Of course, it is difficult to estimate exactly how many individuals are in this nation illegally. The Pew Hispanic Center puts the number of illegal immigrants in the United States in 2010 at about 11.2 million (after peaking at 12.2 million in 2007). Of that figure, approximately 1 million were children under the age of 18 (Passel & Cohn, 2011).
What does this high number of school-aged illegal immigrants mean for the American public school system? This question has been a focal point for education researchers, as well as a politically charged issue among pro- and anti-immigration activists. This paper takes a critical look at the issue and presents an illustration of the positive and negative impacts on school systems and public funds that children of undocumented immigrants present as unwitting components (and, sometimes, victims) of the complex issue of immigration. Second, this paper attempts to separate the politics of the issue from the welfare of the students, assessing the advantages, disadvantages, and performance of children of undocumented immigrants while enrolled in public schools. Within this framework, the reader gains an interesting perspective on an important if underreported part of the enormous and extremely complex issue of immigration in the twenty-first-century United States.
The Many Faces of Public School
In 1975, the Texas Legislature modified its education laws in reaction to the influx of illegal immigrants into the state. The new laws allowed the state to withhold funding for local school districts that allowed the children of illegal immigrants to attend public education institutions. They also authorized local districts to deny enrollment for the children of people who were not "legally admitted" into the country. A class action suit was summarily filed on behalf of a group of Mexican students who claimed that under the 14th Amendment, they were entitled to equal protections and services under the law, and that the Texas laws were unconstitutional.
When the case, Plyler v. Doe, reached the US Supreme Court in 1981, the plaintiffs' case was validated, albeit by a narrow majority, and a tremendously polarizing issue was borne: allowing illegal aliens (and their children) the right to attend US public schools. Writing for the majority, Justice William Brennan stated that regardless of an immigrant's legal status, he or she should receive protections and public services as long as they are in the nation:
“Appellants argue at the outset that undocumented aliens, because of their immigration status, are not 'persons within the jurisdiction' of the State of Texas, and that they therefore have no right to the equal protection of Texas law. We reject this argument. Whatever his status under the immigration laws, an alien is surely a 'person' in any ordinary sense of that term” (Cornell University Law School, 2007).
Although the Supreme Court's decision cemented the rights and protections owed to all residents of the United States (whether here legally or illegally), the backlash that occurred thereafter is one that continues to divide the American public decades later.
Behind the Backlash
There are two main elements at play in explaining the public's push against allowing the children of illegal immigrants access to public services and, in particular, public schooling. The first of these factors is the belief that illegal immigrants, as the term suggests, are breaking the law by entering without documentation and drawing state benefits without contributing to the system. In 2003, the state of Oregon considered passage of a law that allows the children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition for state colleges if they graduate from an Oregon high school, a bill that would mirror similar laws in California, Washington, and several other states. Opposition was fierce, as is the case nationwide. A representative for one anti-illegal immigrant group summarized the opposition: Jim Ludwick, president of Oregonians for Immigration Reform, said of the measure, "This is a slap in the face to everyone who believes in the rule of law. No matter what you do for these people, it's not enough, they want more. The sky's the limit" ("More in-state tuition," 2003). Whether or not Mr. Ludwick's stance is entirely accurate is debatable, as undocumented immigrants cannot receive Medicaid, welfare, or food stamps; although they do frequently use hospital emergency rooms, they do pay sales and payroll taxes, and one in three pays income taxes (Mallaby, 2007). Regardless, however, the perception espoused by a growing percentage of the population that the government must halt benefits for undocumented immigrants remains a driving force behind opposition to allowing their children access to public schools.
The second factor is one that is not necessarily relevant to the educational needs of children. The fear of Americans losing jobs to immigrants, an issue that is centuries old, remains salient among workers. In 2007, legislative efforts to extend an exemption to the seasonal foreign worker laws (known as H-2B visas), one that allows foreign workers to return to the same job in the following year without applying for a new visa, fell short of expectations. The biggest opposition to this exemption came not from xenophobic attitudes (although such sentiments almost certainly existed as well) but from those who fear losing jobs. This position is unfounded, as the H-2B visa program requires that employers exhaust all recruitment resources for local residents before they look abroad for seasonal assistance. Interestingly, this fact plays out in industries in which...
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