ERIC Identifier: ED433172
Publication Date: 1999-09-00
Author: Morse, Susan C. - Ludovina, Frank S.
Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools Charleston WV.
Responding to Undocumented Children in the Schools. ERIC
This Digest discusses public schooling for undocumented immigrant children,
that is, children born outside the United States who live here without the legal
permission of the federal government. Most are children of rural agricultural
workers; others are children of urban service and manufacturing workers (Holman,
1997). Whatever their circumstances, however, undocumented immigrant children
are entitled to attend public school (Plyler v. Doe, 1982).
Universal mass education includes all children, including undocumented
immigrant children, partly because education creates productive workers and
taxpayers who contribute to the general well-being of the nation. Nonetheless,
the mandate to educate the children of "illegals" sometimes provokes xenophobia,
from which these children need special protection. This Digest considers
education policies related, in particular, to serving undocumented students well
in U.S. schools and recommends strategies for meeting students' needs and
ensuring access and equity in their schooling.
THE CHALLENGE FOR SCHOOL SYSTEMS
Despite the United States'
historical image as a "melting pot," immigration has long evoked fears in the
parts of the country most affected by it. In recent years, such fears have been
propagated once again by factions in those states most apt to receive
immigrants. Part of the argument turns around allegations that immigrants, and
especially undocumented immigrants, cause the cost of providing social services,
including education, to increase beyond reason. Acting on such fears, citizens
have sometimes supported anti-immigrant provisions (e.g., California's
The actual cost of schooling undocumented children is, however, unclear.
Because of the ways schools are funded, state and federal aid tend to keep pace
with enrollment increases. Hence, local taxpayers are not likely to suffer an
increased tax burden from the mandate to serve undocumented children. In fact,
studies suggest that taxes withheld from the pay of undocumented workers (who
seldom file for refunds) provide a net gain to local, state, and federal
governments. One study found that undocumented immigrants used public services
at a lower rate than other U.S. residents (Simon, 1997). Like filing for tax
refunds, accessing public services (including schooling) is potentially
dangerous for undocumented residents.
THEORY AND PRACTICE OF THE COMMON SCHOOL
Only within the
past 50 years has the United States begun to realize the ideal of a high school
education for all students. For most of their existence, U.S. public schools
have been exclusive, and the "common school" has been more theory than practice.
This long history means that the tendency to exclude, track, and marginalize
some students (e.g., impoverished students, students of color, language
minorities) remains a force both in society at large and throughout educational
practice. As recently as the 1940s, most children in rural areas did not attend
school beyond the eighth grade. Truancy laws were not enforced, and educators
actively encouraged "difficult" students (including those who spoke languages
other than English) to quit. Only a privileged few had access to the best
schooling. The 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education changed
all of this, giving previously excluded African American children the right to
more equitable access to public education. Brown brought us closer to a school
system we all could hold in common.
In the early 1960s, when new programs began to assist the children of migrant
farmworkers, fewer than 50% of migrant children at the second-grade level
attended school (Johnson et al., 1986). Farmworkers needed their children to
help in the fields or care for younger siblings. Improving attendance became a
major goal of the Federal Migrant Education Program. In the 1960s and 1970s,
pressure increased to enforce child labor laws, due in part to accidents among
children working in the fields.
In the 1980s and 1990s, however, anti-immigrant sentiment has urged the
reestablishment of policies of exclusion. Immigrants usually have not been
welcomed by better established U.S. citizens, who often fear a loss of jobs or
reduction in wages due to competition from immigrant workers willing to labor
for low wages (Takaki, 1993).
Immigration has always stirred
controversy. In 1790 the U.S. Congress enacted a law to initiate residency
requirements; in 1868 the Burlingame Treaty facilitated Chinese immigration,
which helped satisfy the country's growing demand for workers; and in 1882 the
Chinese Exclusion Act came into force when Chinese workers were no longer
needed. In 1924 Congress established the first immigration quota system and the
U.S. Border Patrol. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 implemented cold
war fears, restricting communists and other supposed "undesirables" (Federation
for American Immigration Reform, 1997).
In 1996 the exclusion of undocumented children from public schools was
proposed by the U.S. Congress in the Gallegy amendment to the Illegal
Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, but it was omitted in the
final bill. This amendment (opposed by many police departments) would have put a
sizable population of children in the streets, in the fields, or in other unsafe
conditions while their parents worked.
California's Proposition 187, passed in 1996, "would have excluded
approximately 308,000 children from the schools, and required public schools to
verify the legal status of students and their parents" (Alarcon, 1994). The
education provisions of Proposition 187 were found unconstitutional because they
so blatantly contradicted Plyler v. Doe.
COMPLYING WITH PLYLER
The 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling
Plyler v. Doe stands as the federal law regarding the admission of undocumented
children to public schools. Plyler guarantees undocumented children the right to
a free public education. The Court believed that denying undocumented children
access to education unfairly punished the children for their parents'
undocumented status. As a result of the ruling, schools may not
deny admission to a student on the basis of undocumented status
treat a student fundamentally different from others to determine residency
engage in practices to "chill" access to school
require students or parents to disclose or document immigration status
make inquiries of students or parents that may expose their undocumented status
require Social Security numbers from all students
Chilling. Chilling refers to actions (of affected individuals or
agencies--for instance, teachers, principals, schools, and school districts)
that create fear among undocumented students or their families. Many families
are understandably fearful of completing forms such as vaccination records. They
know their residency in this country is precarious and are generally unclear
about how U.S. institutions function. For example, the free-lunch application
requests Social Security numbers but does not require them. Indeed, the
completion of enrollment forms can dissuade many parents from enrolling their
children in school in the first place.
Exposure. Educators are required not to "expose" children and families to the
Immigration and Naturalization Service. Fear of exposure, however, leads parents
to keep their children from school, and it causes children to worry about being
arrested, separated from their parents, or kicked out of school (James, 1997).
Firm leadership and clearly stated rules are required in an arena of such
simultaneous controversy and clearly articulated legal principles. The Family
Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) also prohibits schools from providing
information to outside agencies that would expose students' citizenship status.
Disparity. Disparity refers to the imposition of different rules according to
individual or group characteristics. An example would be a clerk who demands
original documents of "suspicious" students but accepts copies from all others.
Such procedures, whether gratuitous or a matter of written policy, can
jeopardize the already fragile security of undocumented children. They increase
the probability of exposure or chilling and can easily violate the requirements
States' policies. Guidelines do not allow schools to ask students about their
legal status, but staff can verify residence for purposes of district
SERVING UNDOCUMENTED CHILDREN WELL
Schools that serve
undocumented children well attend to staff attitudes, admission and school
procedures, organization, and (more generally) good educational practices.
Attitudes. School staff expect immigrant children to be motivated and
hardworking. Indeed, many families that immigrate to the United States are
motivated by the opportunity to send their children to good schools. Economic
survival, however, generally figures as a high family priority, possibly
limiting school attendance and participation. It helps if school staff realize
that newly arrived and non-English-speaking parents, although educated in their
own country, will have difficulty dealing with the U.S. education system.
Immigrant parents are likely to view schooling in ways unfamiliar to many U.S.
teachers and administrators. Staff should receive training about cultural and
experiential expectations of the populations they serve (Holman, 1997).
Admission procedures. A courteous, welcoming environment and bilingual
staffing make it likely that parents and children will feel comfortable. Clear
maps of the school, well-marked rooms, color coding, bilingual signs, and
escorts or "buddies" for new students send a welcoming message. Classroom
placements should be made by someone especially familiar with bilingual and
immigrant children and the programs available to help them.
School procedures. School administrators need to lead the ongoing effort to
explain (to both parents and staff) the procedures (including those relating to
Plyler) that particularly affect immigrant, bilingual, and undocumented children
(Carrera, 1992). School rules should be made available in the language of the
parents; the purposes of applications, forms, and questionnaires should be
clearly explained to parents. Special attention should be given to school
practices that may penalize students or parents, such as hidden costs or fines,
confusing changes in bus schedules or school hours, or unclear visiting
Education practices. The characteristics of good schools in general include
many that can enhance the education of undocumented children. Parents are
involved and welcomed; staff works as a team on the clear behalf of students.
The school values students, their families, and their experiences and cultures.
Good practices include effective assessment of academic needs and language
proficiency; appropriate class and course placement, including consultation with
parents and teachers; and instruction geared to students' prior knowledge and
experience. Limited English proficient students should be included in classes
with English-speaking students, but should also receive instruction or support
in their first language for cognitively challenging curriculum. Also important
are social and academic multicultural programs, drop-out prevention efforts,
college and career counseling, and "second-chance" opportunities for education
and training (Romo, 1996).
Teachers and administrators who work hard to
understand the strengths, the lives, and the cultures of undocumented immigrant
children help to create a school environment that benefits all students (Holman,
1997). At the state, district, and local levels, educators and educational
institutions must be assertive in upholding the law. They must ensure that
undocumented children have access to the services to which their legal rights
entitle them. References
Alarcon, R. (1994). Proposition 187: An effective measure to deter
undocumented migration to California? San Francisco: Multicultural Education,
Training, and Advocacy. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 396 901)
Brown v. Board of Education. 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
Carrera, J. (1992). Immigrant students, their legal right of access to public
schools: A guide for advocates and educators (Rev. ed.). Boston: National
Coalition of Advocates for Students. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED
Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, 20 U.S.C. Sec. 1232g. (1974).
Federation for American Immigration Reform. (1997, June). U.S. Immigration
History. http://www.fairus.org/html/immigrhistory.html (July 28, 1999).
Holman, L. (1997, April). Working effectively with Hispanic immigrant
families. Phi Delta Kappan, 78, 647-649.
Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, 8 U.S.C. Sec.
1101 et seq. (1996). Summary:
http://www.nafsa.org/retrieve/1.41/IIreform_summary.html (July 28, 1999).
James, D. C. S. (1997). Coping with a new society: The psychosocial problems
of immigrant youth. Journal of School Health, 67(3), 98-101.
Johnson, F., Levy, R., Morales, J., Morse, S., & Prokopp, M. (1986).
Migrant students at the secondary level: Issues and opportunities for change.
Las Cruces, NM: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools. (ERIC
Document Reproduction Service No. ED 270 242)
Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202 (1982).
Romo, H. (1996). The newest "outsiders": Educating Mexican migrant and
immigrant youth. In J. L. Flores (Ed.), Children of la frontera: Binational
efforts to serve Mexican migrant and immigrant students (pp. 61-91). Charleston,
WV: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools. (ERIC Document
Reproduction Service No. ED 393 635)
Simon, J. (1997, June 25). Errors about immigrants: The government spends
much more on the native born. http://www.cato.org/dailys/6-25-97.html (July 28,
Takaki, R. (1993). A different mirror: A history of multicultural America.
Boston: Little, Brown.