Posing significant challenges for educators, about 1 in 8 students in California schools has at least one parent who is undocumented, according to a new brief from the Education Trust-West.
Undocumented children, as well as U.S. citizen children with undocumented relatives, have experienced heightened anxieties for several years as a result of deportation policies begun under President George W. Bush and tightened ones under President Barack Obama.
But according to school officials, those anxieties have reached new heights since Donald Trump’s inauguration, with possible consequences on their ability to focus on school work, the willingness of parents to attend school events, or even to bring their children to school.
Education Trust-West, an advocacy organization in Oakland, estimates that 750,000 students in California’s preK-12 schools have an undocumented parent, out of a total enrollment of 6.2 million. Some of these students may be undocumented themselves, but the vast majority of K-12 children with undocumented parents are U.S. citizens.
According to the Ed-Trust West brief, only 240,000 children between 3 and 17-year-olds are undocumented.
These figures do not include most of the teenagers and young adults who have received temporary protection from deportation through the Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals program. By far the majority of the 214,000 young people who were approved are of college-going age.
Last week in an interview with The Associated Press, Trump said undocumented students who have received temporary relief from deportation through the DACA program could “rest easy.” “We are not after the Dreamers, we are after the criminals,” he said. “That is our policy.” The term “Dreamers” is used colloquially to refer to DACA students, who must be 15 years or older to qualify.
Over the weekend, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly also said that his department won’t target DACA recipients. These assurances, however, were undercut when Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ was asked on ABC’s This Week on Sunday whether Dreamers could “rest easy.” “Well, we’ll see. I believe that everyone who enters the country illegally is subject to being deported,” he responded.
In any case, DACA recipients make up a small proportion of undocumented immigrants, and anxieties among immigrant families and students are still running very high, according to several participants in the One Voice Assembly in Sacramento last week sponsored by the California Association of Latino Superintendents and Administrators. David Verdugo, the organization’s executive director, said the anxieties many Latino students are experiencing “is taking away from the academic focus we want to maintain throughout our respective districts.”
Other figures suggest that the number of public school students with undocumented parents could be even higher than those in the Ed Trust-West brief. A report issued last month by the Center for American Progress, in collaboration with the University of Southern California’s Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration, estimated that over 1.9 million children under 18 years old in California live in a household with at least one undocumented family member. (These estimates are based on U.S. Census figures gathered through the American Community Survey between 2010 and 2014.)
Nearly 70 percent, or 1.3 million, of these children are likely to be of school-going age (between 5 and 17). But because some of their unauthorized household members may be relatives other than parents, such as siblings or aunts or uncles, it is hard to determine exactly how many of the 1.3 million children under these estimates have an undocumented parent.
But even deportation of family members other than parents, or the threat of deportation, is likely to raise a child’s anxieties, and have an impact on a child’s mental health and school performance.
“Deporting a family member, especially a parent, has serious detrimental impacts on children,” the Center for American Progress report stated.
“In addition to the loss of a parent and the immeasurable security that comes with having a stable family, deportations often leave children in the foster care system,” the authors of the report wrote. “Fathers, in many immigrant families, are often the bread winners and are more often detained or deported. Removals can, therefore, result in a large number of single mothers left behind to care and provide for the family.”
The report also pointed to research showing that “when their parents have been deported, children go through multiple negative experiences: They suffer from psychological trauma, especially when they witness a parent’s arrest; their family is separated; and they are likely to experience housing insecurity and economic instability.”
As a state, California provides a wide range of supports for undocumented students, but mostly for those attending, or wishing to attend, college. These include students being eligible for Cal-Grants to cover tuition costs, receiving fee waivers at the California Community Colleges, and having access to counseling and other services at Undocumented Student Centers at all UC campuses and some CSU and community college campuses.
But there are far fewer formal supports for undocumented children attending preK-12 public schools, or for U.S. citizen children with undocumented parents. That is in part because school officials may not even know who these children are. School districts are not required to collect information on a student’s immigration status, according to the Association of California School Administrators.
In fact, the California School Boards Association encourages them not to do so. “Any such inquiry may violate federal law, and may put the school in a position of being challenged by federal agents to release such information if collected,” the association wrote in a legal guide it issued earlier this year. As a result of the 1982 Plyler v. Doe U.S. Supreme Court ruling, undocumented children have a constitutional right to attend U.S. schools. School districts that do anything to discourage them from doing so could run afoul of the law, Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, told EdSource last week.
In recent months, a growing number of school districts have declared themselves “safe havens” for immigrant students or passed other resolutions to reassure immigrant students. But so far only about 60 districts and county offices of education, out of more than 1,000 statewide, have adopted such resolutions, according to the California Department of Education.
The San Francisco-based Immigrant Legal Resource Center says that schools can do a lot to help children and families in immigrant communities cope with immigration fears bordering on “panic.” “As a trusted institution in immigrant families’ lives, schools can play a critical role in ensuring immigrant families have access to important information and resources,” the center wrote in its “guidance for schools” brief.
The organization said schools should go out of their way to reassure students and families that undocumented children have the right to attend public schools, encourage families to find out about their rights and options, host community events at schools and at the same time encourage families to prepare for the worst.
“Without creating panic, it is important that immigrant families prepare for potentially harsh new immigration policies,” the center advised. “They should have child care and an emergency plan in place if parents are taken into immigration custody.”