Betraying our immigrant students


A survey of educators reveals that current immigration policies are having harmful effects on a wide range of students and the adults who work with them.


Every day, newspapers across the country report on the human tragedies caused by the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement policies: families being separated, neighborhoods ripped apart, children coming home to find their parents gone. However, the press rarely mentions the immense toll this is taking on the nation’s schools, their students, and the educators who work with them.

It’s important to note that up to 90% of “immigrant students” are U.S. citizens. Most attend Title I schools in low-income communities, studying alongside other children who live in or near poverty. Their schools have long faced myriad challenges, including high teacher turnover, inadequate resources, and a string of substitutes. But now they also are reeling from the threat of immigration enforcement on their students’ families and friends.

When the specter of deportation makes parents afraid to interact with public institutions they might otherwise look to for important supports and services, children come to school unprepared to learn. Growing numbers of students are going without the benefit of eye exams and glasses, health checkups and dentist visits, or even adequate nutrition. Not only do children of unauthorized immigrants tend to suffer from untreated health problems more often than other children, but research suggests they also suffer from disproportionately high rates of anxiety, depression, and toxic stress. And, of course, all of this affects their ability to do well in school, or even to attend school regularly.K1809_Gandara_Art_554x350px

We recently surveyed teachers, counselors, administrators, and other staff from about 750 schools across the country, asking them how, if at all, immigration enforcement was affecting their work. Roughly two-thirds of respondents (or 3,500 educators, 83% of whom work in Title I schools) said they have seen significant effects in both their own classrooms and the school as a whole. More than three-quarters reported seeing behavioral or emotional problems among their immigrant students, and two-thirds noted a decline in academic performance.

Many respondents said that when there are immigration raids in the area, students go into hiding, often for days at a time. Others described empty desks in their classrooms — desks of children who had disappeared overnight and never returned, their fates unknown. And, of course, when students go missing, everyone is affected. Their classmates and friends mourn their loss, cry, and act out, and teachers have to stop teaching to attend to them. Almost two-thirds of our survey respondents reported such “indirect” effects on the other students in their classes.

So, too, are teachers affected. For example, one told of her distress at being told by a 4th grader that she had to learn to prepare food for her baby sister in case their mother is deported. Another told of a high school student who tried to slit her wrists when her mother was taken away. Many educators expressed symptoms of depression, trauma, and a sense of helplessness that surely affects their ability to teach. Others shared concerns about the crumbling sense of community in their schools, and some noted that they were unsure whom to confide in, since sharing information could put their students’ families in jeopardy.

The nearly 1.8 million young people who are enrolled in or eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program — roughly 20% of whom are high school students — continue to live under a cloud of fear and uncertainty as well. For the time being, the courts have stayed President Donald Trump’s elimination of the program, but the situation could change at any moment. These “dreamers” were brought to the United States at an early age, with no say in the matter, and they have played by the rules and adopted this country as their home, but they continue to be strung along, with no compassionate resolution in sight.

But even if DACA were re-established, as it should be, the underlying problem would remain: For decades, this country has depended on immigrants to come and fill jobs that no one else wants, at wages no one else would accept. For decades, it has relied on them to work hard, pay taxes, and take on all the responsibilities of American citizenship, without offering them any of the rights. And now it has decided to get rid of them, and their children, as though they were vermin. (President Trump has described their presence as an “infestation.”)

A humane society would not do this to parents and children at all. In this case, we are doing it to our own children — again, up to 90% of immigrant students are, in fact, U.S. citizens — and in the process we are terrorizing our own communities, damaging our own schools, and traumatizing our own educators. Shame on us all.


Citation: Gándara, P. (2018). Backtalk: Betraying our immigrant students. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (1), 48.


PATRICIA GÁNDARA ( is professor of education and codirector of the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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