As Immigration Resurges, U.S. Public Schools Help Children Find Their Footing

Emma Brown, Washington Post, February 7, 2016

As U.S. presidential candidates fight over the best way to address the influx of Central Americans across the Southwest border–with debate about building walls and deporting immigrants–the nation’s public schools have opened their doors, taking responsibility for helping tens of thousands of children find their footing here.

It’s not an easy task.

Many of the new arrivals don’t speak much English and are behind academically. {snip} And U.S. schools, already strapped for resources, are trying to provide special services, including ­English-language instruction and mental-health care.

The schools have to, because it’s the law: Children who are living in this country have a right to a public education, regardless of their immigration status. But for many educators it’s also more than a legal obligation, it’s the moral thing to do.

“The United States is founded on human rights,” said Sandra Jimenez, the principal of High Point High School in Prince George’s County, Md., a Washington suburb where the immigrant population has grown rapidly. “The only reason these people are here is because they are desperate. These people are coming to survive.”

There were more than 630,000 immigrant students nationwide in the 2013-2014 school year, according to the latest federal education data available, which defines immigrants as children born outside the country and enrolled in U.S. schools for less than three years. That figure has grown since immigration across the southern border surged two years ago: Between Oct. 1, 2013 and Dec. 31, 2015, federal officials released more than 95,000 unaccompanied minors into U.S. communities, virtually all of them entitled to enroll in public school.

High Point, like many other schools flooded with foreign students, has had to adjust. A school with an enrollment of 2,400, it has registered 282 new immigrants so far this school year. Last year, it took on 396 new immigrants; the year before that, 307. Some of them immigrated legally, and others did not.

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Not everyone believes that the nation’s tax dollars should be used to educate immigrants who arrive in the country illegally, and others argue that forcing school districts to take on the challenge isn’t fair when resources already are stretched too thin.

“Congress should not allow the Obama administration to incentivize illegal immigration and human smuggling by rewarding those who participate,” Jessica M. Vaughan, of the Center for Immigration Studies, told a House Judiciary subcommittee Thursday, arguing that youths and other immigrants should be detained near the border. In an email to The Washington Post, she bemoaned the effects: “The cost of meeting the educational needs for the kids who are arriving illegally as part of the surge is the main way that the administration’s policy is burdensome to state and local governments.”

Services for immigrant students have caused tension in Prince George’s County. In 2014, school system officials announced that they planned to create two high schools for ­English-language learners; the NAACP objected, arguing that other students also have academic needs that deserve attention.

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