Undocumented Immigrants: Students “in the Shadows”
Let’s start with some truisms: Not all Latinos are immigrants, and not all immigrants are undocumented. Many Latino families have been in the country for generations; many others entered the country and live here legally.
But coverage of Latino education issues would not be complete without covering issues related to immigration status. As we’ve noted here before, outside pressures play a major role in student achievement and help explain why the achievement gap seems so intransigent.
A study published last week in the Harvard Educational Review points out the problems faced by children of undocumented immigrants and how those might affect school performance.
“Growing up in the Shadows” is a first-of-its-kind study synthesizing research that tracked undocumented children from birth to college and entry into the job market. It should be required reading for anyone covering communities and education and offers a grim look at the hurdles and concerns faced by undocumented children.
The numbers alone make this an important issue to examine: About 5.5 million children have parents who are in the country illegally; one in ten children live in mixed-status families (meaning at least one family member is undocumented); and about 79 percent of the children of undocumented parents are citizens (about four million).
Those children are “at risk of lower educational performance, economic stagnation, blocked mobility and ambiguous belonging” because of the family’s immigration status, researchers concluded. They grow up in an atmosphere of “fear and vigilance,” with parents who are less likely to be involved in schools.
“The threat of deportation results in lower levels of enrollment of citizen-children in programs they are eligible for, including child-care subsidies, public preschool, and food stamps, and lowered interactions and engagement with public institutions, such as schools,” the study concluded.
The children’s academic and social growth is also hampered by their parents’ working conditions, the researchers said, noting that many undocumented immigrants work twelve-hour days, six days a week under unsafe working conditions.
Although undocumented parents value education as much as other parents, the study notes that those families face other obstacles to education. Many are separated for long periods of time, and often go through a tumultuous reunification process. Children may often live in fear of being separated from their parents in the event of deportation.
Teenagers face an especially difficult set of problems, since legal status can create obstacles to typical coming-of-age rituals such as getting a driver’s license or applying to college. Many undocumented students do not find out their true legal status until they hit adolescence, making a fragile time of life even shakier.