About 50 million students were enrolled in U.S. public elementary and secondary schools in 2012. Of those, 7 percent (3.5 million children) had at least one undocumented parent, according to data from the Pew Research Center for Hispanic Trends. While most of the children with unauthorized immigrant parents were born in the U.S., the remainder, about 49,000, are undocumented themselves. This kind of data underscores the striking fact that immigration policy is education policy. Specifically, as current immigration policy separates families and leaves children parentless, the educational and emotional impact on even U.S.-born students can be staggering.
A CNN feature in 2013 profiled teen siblings in Florida orphaned after their father was deported while they were at school. It was the second time the children, who are both legal residents, lost a parent to deportation—their mother was returned to Nicaragua in 2008. “Constantly worrying that their parents will be snatched away, children often feel angry, helpless, and trapped,” CNN’s Cindy Y. Rodriguez and Adriana Hauser wrote. A study by the advocacy organization Human Impact Partners published the same year, “Family Unity, Family Health,” found that the deportation scares take a mental and physical toll on undocumented immigrants’ children. Researchers linked the threat of detention and deportation to poorer educational outcomes, concluding: “U.S.-citizen children who live in families under threat of detention or deportation will finish fewer years of school and face challenges focusing on their studies.”
This research provides important insight given the current round of federal raids triggering deep-seated fears in the Hispanic community. As immigration agents target adults with school-age children in several states, even those exempt from the sanctions are anxious and scared.
“Fear is at an all-time high in the community. Parents are not going out unless they absolutely need to,” said Zorayda Moreira-Smith, the senior director for schools and community development at CASA de Maryland, an immigration advocacy-and-assistance organization. Moreira-Smith said a consequence of the immigration raids is that parents are laying low, and if their child is at risk of being detained and deported, they’re keeping them at home. In practical terms, this means children missing doctor’s appointments, missing playdates, and of increasing concern to educators, missing school.
High Point High School in Beltsville, Maryland, nicknamed “Central American Ellis Island” by the principal, offers a snapshot of the challenges for schools and teachers amid swelling fears. In Maryland, Hispanics account for a rising share of the state’s population, and in larger jurisdictions like Prince George’s County, much of the growth is tied to an influx of Central American immigrants. In a recent NPR interview, the principle of High Point, Sandra Jimenez, reported a dramatic drop in attendance right after the winter break, attributing it in large part to heightened stress over the federal raids. Of the students who enrolled over the past year, only half are now coming to school; attendance for this same group, mostly unaccompanied minors, was at 90 percent or higher prior to January.