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Immigrant Students: Our Kids, Our Future

Patricia Gándara: Immigrant Students: Our Kids, Our Future

This blog is part of the series, Education and the Path to Equity, examining issues of education and equity 5 decades after the Kerner Commission issued its seminal report on racial division and disparities in the United States.

The 50th anniversary of the Kerner Commission report finds us in a very different country. Fifty years ago, we were living in a black-and-white world. At the time of the Kerner Commission, immigration was at a historic low. Less than 5% of the population were immigrants, and those immigrants were largely White Europeans. Because of this trend, in 1965 the federal government removed immigration quotas that had been established in a more xenophobic time and emphasized family reunification as a goal of our immigration policy. These changes led to a dramatic shift in the demographics of the nation.

Today, about 44 million people—13.5% of the population—are immigrants of many different ethnicities. They represent a lower percentage of the general population than immigrants did in 1890, making this the country’s second great wave of immigration.

To hear the rhetoric around building a wall on the southern border, one would think that 100% of our immigrants come from Mexico, but the reality is that Mexicans comprise only 26% of all immigrants in the U.S. In fact, in 2016, more immigrants came from both India and China than came from Mexico. The Asian population in the U.S. is growing faster than the Latinx population. We are now a four-race country: White, Latinx, Black, and Asian.

One in four children in the U.S. today is the child of immigrants, with at least one immigrant parent. This is a significant portion of our population, but it's important also to note that 90% of those “immigrant” children were actually born in the U.S. They're our kids. They're our citizens. They're our responsibility. They're our future.

On February 28, 2018, Patricia Gándara spoke at the half-day forum, Kerner Commission 50th Anniversary: Education and the Path to One Nation, Indivisible. The forum focused on education as the foundation for change within the broader scope of poverty, inequality, and racial injustice that the Kerner Commission report addressed. Watch Dr. Gándara's remarks.

More than half of these U.S.-born children of immigrants live at or near the poverty line, often in triply segregated situations of race, poverty, and language, where they are isolated from the rest of the children in our communities. Forty percent of immigrant children live in families in which neither parent is a citizen. But this does not necessarily mean the parents are undocumented. Many are, in fact, legal residents. But since they can’t vote, they're not able to help shape the policies that so dramatically affect their lives—at least not at the polling booth.

The population of immigrant children is growing fastest in the South, and it has again become a focal point of racial challenges, albeit of different sorts. This is also where the anti-immigrant policies of the Trump administration are having their largest, and most debilitating, impact. At the Civil Rights Project, we have just released a national study of the impact of immigration enforcement policies on the nation’s schools. Our data include surveys from teachers, administrators, and other certificated personnel from more than 730 schools in 24 school districts in 12 states. Two thirds of initial respondents reported that immigration enforcement has had an impact on their schools; 3,500 individuals completed surveys telling us how this is affecting teaching and learning at their site.

Ninety percent of administrators in this study observed behavioral or emotional problems in their immigrant students. And 1 in 4 said it was extensive. This was most evident in the South.

Seventy percent of administrators from across the country reported academic decline among their immigrant students. One in six counselors reported this to be extensive. A Tennessee counselor tells us that several students have arrived at school crying, withdrawn, and refusing to eat lunch, because they've witnessed deportations of a family member. Some students show symptoms of anxiety. All of this impacts their ability to focus and complete work, which affects them academically. And many teachers report that college-bound, excellent students—their best students—are giving up on school because they doubt that they have a future in the U.S.

As a Tennessee administrator says, “They're not thinking about college or the test next week, or what is being taught in the classroom today. They're thinking about their family and whether they will still be a family … whether their family will remain intact.”

The empty desks in the classroom stand as symbols of communities torn apart. The students who remain grieve the loss of their friends and classmates and wonder if they will be next.

The effects are also pervasive. More than 1 in 7 educators in the South reported that students’ learning was being affected a lot due to concerns not for themselves, but for classmates whose families are targeted. More than two thirds of educators reported increasing absenteeism due to raids as a problem. The empty desks in the classroom stand as symbols of communities torn apart. The students who remain grieve the loss of their friends and classmates and wonder if they will be next.

We justify raining down this terror on immigrant students by arguing that their families are a problem. And we harbor the belief that they can't assimilate because they are simply too different—what we have said about every wave of immigrants to this country. Students are defined by what they don't have—a strong command of English—but in fact these young people have at least five characteristics that prime them to be the very best learners in our schools.

  1. They have resilience. These kids face poverty and incredible fear, uncertainty, and lack of support. And yet they come back to school every day, hoping to create a future for themselves and their families.
  2. They are collaborative. The children who come from Latinx and Asian-American families, the two groups that form the greatest portion of our immigrants, tend to have an orientation toward collaborative learning, according to the research. They like to work in teams. And employers are telling us this is the way we need to educate our children.
  3. These students are optimistic. They are true believers in the American dream.
  4. These children are multilingual. They have languages, other than English, to build on. We now know that there are tremendous cognitive benefits to being multilingual.
  5. And finally, they are multicultural. They can see things from different perspectives. And that helps them to be more innovative, more creative. In fact, it helps us all to be more creative.

These talented and asset-rich—and largely U.S.-citizen—students are being terrorized in a way that can only lead to alienation. Perhaps even worse, it is a squandering of human potential that has historically been the lifeblood of this nation.

Patricia Gándara is Research Professor of Education in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA and Co-director of the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at UCLA.