What Undocumented Students Bring to the Classroom

Public discourse shouldn't focus on what immigrants "take" from America but rather on how they enhance the learning experiences for all the country's children.

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Teaching requires flexibility, the ability to manage a class that could be made up of English-language learners, half-comatose stoners, and confident National Merit semi-finalists alike—and somehow inspire all factions. At the California public school where I currently teach, the population is roughly two-thirds Latino; the ratio was far larger on my last campus. Some of these students are undocumented and, in my experience, likely to have language-acquisition needs, contend with family and work obligations, and feel alienated in the school community.

While certain public-school teachers might want to avoid dealing with the challenges that come with educating undocumented students, I prefer to think of an ER. When a highway pile-up fills the hospital beds, doctors don’t ask bloody patients what kind of cars they were driving or sputter about their steering skills. Similar to nightshift residents treating the injured, good educators teach the kids who show up—regardless of their behavior, academic skills, or language proficiencies. And regardless of whether they're in the country legally or not.

In fact, I view these students as assets to the classroom and school community. I want them there. Perhaps U.S. citizens who wish that undocumented students would disappear from public schools fail to recognize how much they have to offer to America’s education system.

Though surveys suggest that these Americans constitute a minority, that minority is significant. According to a September 2014 Pew Research poll, 40 percent of Americans oppose public education for undocumented students (a 2013 Gallup poll had the figure at 55 percent, while a 2014 Rasmussen poll came up with 53 percent). Some critics may fret about "alien" gangs flooding across the border and the purported sullying of American values. Many may argue that American workers pay for undocumented students' free education, one that—with the specialized strategies, bilingual teachers, and various resource programs—ends up costing big bucks: $761 million this year, according to a September 2014 report from the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a nonprofit organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2007 deemed "a hate group."

In reality, 40 percent of undocumented immigrants arrive in the U.S. legally and simply remain once their visas expire, according to federal statistics. A 2012 Pew Research poll found that more than 60 percent of undocumented immigrants in America have been residents for more than 10 years. Many flee human rights disasters in their home countries—drug wars, corruption, kidnappings, and extortion. They often seek asylum, not necessarily money to funnel back home. The parents of undocumented students pay nearly $11 billion total a year in taxes, according to a 2013 Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy study, though, fearing deportation, many undocumented immigrants tend to avoid accessing many of the government services supported by those taxes. Meanwhile, many newly arrived students learn English shockingly fast. They often come to the U.S. so early on in their lives that they think of themselves as American, but then often have to learn the hard way that they are not—legally, at least.

Most of the undocumented students I’ve met—and I’m only counting those who’ve explicitly revealed their status to me—show up early and stay after school. I’ve seen most undocumented students needing to earn money for their families and care for younger relatives. Their essays and remarks reveal that they cope with the fears that come with being rootless and vulnerable to deportation—whether their own or that of their parents. I have also seen that undocumented students are no easier to stereotype than any demographic. I have taught some who say they have no memories of their birth countries and demonstrate little command of Spanish; I have also taught new arrivals who struggle to learn English along with algebra and U.S. history. I’ve taught students who enjoy soccer and indie rock, as well as those who listen to corridos and obsess over American football.

The U.S. Supreme Court has already affirmed these kids’ right to a free public education, though some states—California, for one—have seen the law challenged both directly and indirectly. In the 1982 decision in Plyler v. Doe, the Court by a 5-4 vote held that states can’t deny school to students because of their immigration status. The dissent largely argued that the decision should be left up to school districts, adding that "the long-range costs of excluding any children from the public schools may well outweigh the costs of educating them."

The dissent correctly acknowledges that the alternative to educating undocumented students is hardly ideal. These kids do often struggle academically—49 percent drop out of high school—and may be poor and subject to less parental oversight, perhaps making them more susceptible than the average teenager to slipping into the kind of illicit activities likely to result in arrest and imprisonment. Existing immigration trends demonstrate that reversing Plyler v. Doe wouldn’t halt the arrival of undocumented children; it would just mean more adolescents standing around idly, with limited skills, little opportunity to improve their situations, and scarce employment opportunities—ripe conditions anywhere for increased gang activity and crime. Imprisonment is costlier than education, and mass deportation is prohibitively expensive and laborious. A story last month in The Atlantic cited a recent American Action Forum study reporting that deporting all 11.2 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. (at least 1 million of them children) would take close to 20 years and cost the country at least $400 billion total, reducing economic growth by 5.7 percent in the process. With last summer’s predictions of a 70,000 surge in undocumented children crossing the border, the figures are bound to rise, and with them, the temperature of ongoing debates.

Conversations should focus on what these kids bring to American classrooms. While they are not in school to serve someone else’s needs, undocumented students often have first-hand or at least second-hand experiences with state-sanctioned persecution, civil wars, and life under leadership unaccountable to taxed constituents. These are inescapable themes in U.S. History and World Civilization classes. Consider a conversation about civil war in a social studies course in which undocumented students sit alongside middle- and high-income white kids. In one of my class discussions, a conversant spoke of her grandfather, who fought in the recent 10-decade-plus domestic conflict that ravaged El Salvador and included the massacre of tens of thousands of indigenous people. Or, hypothetically, imagine how a recently arrived child from Guerrero, Mexico, might offer a valuable perspective on government corruption. This level of insight is the promise on which integrated public schools can deliver.

Classrooms can be forums for the honest, uncomfortable, revealing conversations adults don’t make enough time for in their public lives. Every student has important insights to share. But undocumented immigrants tend to be more recent arrivals, and when they’re encouraged, may be less likely to toe the party line in classroom discussions that, with their presence and participation, often become more relevant and engaging.

Think about literature class—mine, for instance. Many of the books I have taught touch on themes accessible to a new arrival. Odysseus is homeward bound, not moving to a new country. Still, belabored by twists and turns, eager to reunite with loved ones, and willing to take risks and suffer indignities, he and his archetypal voyage may resonate with students who remember their own journeys and reunions. In The Stranger, the white, French-born Meursault is definitely more of an expat than an immigrant, but in Algiers he’s isolated, enveloped in a society that does not recognize him. Even more than most teenagers, undocumented students may identify with him—and similarly wrestle with the world’s perceived indifference and absurdity. When reading Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, they readily grasp the internalized inferiority of the Tres Marías peasants in the face of the aristocratic, mannered French visitor Count Jean de Satigny.

A teacher doesn’t have to plan lessons around these realities, or call out students who may not feel like being called out. I don’t, for example, stroll over to the kid who wrote his college-admissions essay about walking across the Sonoran Desert when he was 5 and say, "hey, haven’t you taken a journey before?" The sharing happens organically when a classroom is inclusive and interactive.

When I consider the values that many Americans like to associate with this country—sacrifice, duty, reinvention, ingenuity, and possibility—the undocumented students I have taught seem exceptionally "American." Kids who have crawled under barbed wire and shared one-bedroom apartments with a dozen extended family members understand hardship. I have heard them applaud their parents’ sacrifices with a conviction that many of other students don’t demonstrate.

Despite their disenfranchisement, a surprising number of undocumented students appear to believe firmly that this country rewards merit and hard work—even as they struggle to pay astronomically high tuition at the universities to which their hard work has gotten them. When discussing George Saunders’s short story "The 400 Pound CEO," a satirical critique of, among other things, opportunity in America, undocumented students are generally more likely than their more-privileged citizen counterparts to resist the idea that the proverbial deck is stacked in favor of a lucky few. They have faith that a hard-working and talented individual can beat the odds to find personal and financial success. They really think that anybody can be anything. They can latch on to a few anecdotal real-life Horatio Alger stories as evidence for the veracity of such optimism.

I have a former student—undocumented, currently 19, the father of a 2-year-old—who now attends UC Berkeley. For a "good time" in high school, he went to see motivational speakers in Vegas. He’s now majoring in chemistry. This year I have an 18-year-old student who lives on his own, his parents back in Guatemala. He told me he works almost 30 hours a week at McDonald’s so he can pay for the room he rents in a family friend’s house. Another senior recalled that he didn’t know his parents until he was 10 and had recently arrived in Northern California as an immigrant. One of my 10th-graders confided that she flew to San Francisco from Mexico under a false name as a kindergartner; she left behind the aunt she’d always assumed was her mother to live with a woman she’d never met: her actual mom. By coming together in classes and swapping stories, American kids of all backgrounds can redefine determination and sacrifice through their experiences. While they’re still very much teenagers—at times moody, apathetic, rude, and addicted to video games and banal memes—their stories feel inextricable from the American experience, narratives marked by struggle, ambition, and the urge toward reinvention. They remind their documented peers about what it takes to meet such towering challenges. Without their presence in schools, formally "American" kids are more likely to learn about these values in abstract, which hurts America along with the kids.

Because of their language challenges, new arrivals often initially take classes apart from their peers who speak English fluently, including whites, fellow Latinos, and other minorities. They study, socialize, and date within this bubble. Two months ago, for a narrative-writing assignment related to a Junot Diaz short story, I had seniors imagine transplanting the main character’s dating proclivities to their school. Inspired by Diaz’s character Yunior, most students created arrogant, insecure, eager-to-stereotype second-person narrators who uniformly identified "the newcomers" as the least desirable social group, the guys and girls to avoid when dating.

At a diverse, medium-sized public high school in the Bay Area, I have seen an onion of belonging, with new arrivals typically isolated on the outer rings, nonwhite students further in to varying degrees, and the most affluent white students at the sweet center—the divas of student government, the Homecoming kings. Making the newcomers more of a part of the larger school community is important. Their inclusion in the classrooms and on the same sports teams with students who are documented could benefit the policy dialogue that happens outside of the classroom. In some cases, these kids’ parents are the ones advocating for more stringent policies, and while it’s one thing to want stronger immigration laws, it’s another to push for the deportation of your daughter’s soccer teammate and lab partner.

The hope should be that these kids, benefiting from an arsenal of specialized strategies, bilingual teachers, and resource programs, will want and win more than manual labor gigs and an existence perpetually on the margins. If education really was what it’s supposed to be for anyone who shows up—a great equalizer, a granter of opportunity—then America would presumably have an increased supply problem when it comes to college admissions and competition for jobs. It would mean that more people, like that UC Berkeley student, may have the opportunity to bring themselves up.