ERIC Identifier: ED433172
Publication Date: 1999-09-00
Author: Morse, Susan C. - Ludovina, Frank S.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools Charleston WV.

Responding to Undocumented Children in the Schools. ERIC Digest.

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.


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 Proposition 187).

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.


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.


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 of Plyler.

States' policies. Guidelines do not allow schools to ask students about their legal status, but staff can verify residence for purposes of district attendance.


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 procedures.

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 381 588)

Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, 20 U.S.C. Sec. 1232g. (1974).

Federation for American Immigration Reform. (1997, June). U.S. Immigration History. (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: (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. (July 28, 1999).

Takaki, R. (1993). A different mirror: A history of multicultural America. Boston: Little, Brown.

Library Reference Search

Please note that this site is privately owned and is in no way related to any Federal agency or ERIC unit.  Further, this site is using a privately owned and located server. This is NOT a government sponsored or government sanctioned site. ERIC is a Service Mark of the U.S. Government. This site exists to provide the text of the public domain ERIC Documents previously produced by ERIC.  No new content will ever appear here that would in any way challenge the ERIC Service Mark of the U.S. Government.

Popular Pages

More Info