I have spent the last four years working to ensure that educators and schools deliver an equal and equitable education to immigrant-origin youth. School is where the American dream begins. And decades of research by leading researchers including Carola Suarez-Orozco and Marcelo Suarez-Orozco demonstrates that immigrant-origin youth enter schools full of optimism and a desire to learn. Yet despite their belief in the importance of schooling, our educational system is failing them. By extension, it fails all of us. What is most distressing, is that few people notice. Are these children, so essential to our future, invisible?
Immigrant-origin youth comprise 27% of the school-aged population. They are primarily viewed by educational institutions through the prism of English Learners, a group that comprises 10% of K12 students. The other 17% of immigrant-origin students are often just as vulnerable, but many are not understood by those that teach them.
Invisibility comes at tremendous cost—for example a 20% difference in graduation rates for English learners versus their peers. Those who are refused school admission (as happens for many high school-aged refugees or asylum-seekers), or drop out of school, will earn over their lifetimes $1 million less than their college-educated peers. They are 200% likely to live in poverty, 300% more likely to be unemployed, are more likely to be arrested or face a serious illness, and have a 10-year shorter life expectancy than those who graduate high school. Unequal education leads to lost opportunity, health disparities, and reduced income for these young people.
The majority of US Supreme Court justices in the 1982 landmark educational rights case, Plyler v. Doe, recognized the essential role of schools in the lives of immigrant students and their communities when they wrote, “By denying….children a basic education, we deny them the ability to live within the structure of our civic institution and foreclose any realistic possibility that they will contribute in even the smallest way to the progress of our Nation.”
Yet, this is precisely what we are now doing.
Equity demands that we recognize that the children of immigrants are more than kids who need to learn English. Consider the stresses that are common among immigrants: family separation, acculturation challenges within and outside of the home, transitional immigration status, as well as trauma before, during, or after migration.
These challenges are compounded when hateful rhetoric about immigration spills into schools as it has for the last several years. Immigrant-origin youth become frequent targets of xenophobia and racialization:
Go back to your country.
Build the Wall.
Despite the need, educators receive little to no preparation to support these eager learners. As a result, immigrant students—many with parents whose hope for their children motivated them to migrate—feel their teachers see them as less capable than their peers. Nor is much done to counter the anti-immigrant hate that turns schools toxic. Less than half of U.S. schools communicate about the need to “tolerate or respect“ immigrant youth.
Immigrant students must be invisible. How else can we explain why we tolerate unequal education for over a quarter of the school-aged population?
When the children of immigrants are given a fair chance, they succeed educationally, economically, and socially, and it benefits everyone. Research shows that immigrants learning, working, and playing with their native-born peers strengthens the quality of education and enhances our communities’ economic prosperity.
Without significant immigration, the U.S. population will shrink inexorably this century. Immigrant-origin workers are central to the US economy, paying $492.4 billion in taxes and hold $1.3 trillion in spending power. Some 44% of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children. Those companies earn $6.3 trillion in revenue, more than the entire GDP of Japan, Germany, or the U.K.
In truth, the children of immigrants are not invisible. But the issues that negatively impact their lives are. We must do better.
Policymakers and philanthropists don’t seem to comprehend what is going on. An immigration public policy colleague phrased it succinctly, “The U.S. has an immigration policy, but we don’t have an immigrant policy.” Government programming for immigrants primarily focuses on preparing people to apply for and pass citizenship tests. Yet over 85% of the children of immigrants are already U.S. citizens. They don’t need citizenship education. They need policies and programs that promote equity and civic empowerment.
Immigrant-origin youth also find themselves in a philanthropic gap between funders that identify immigration as a priority and those that support education. I am not the first to raise this issue. In 2018, Efraín Gutiérrez and Aryah Somers Landsberger wrote an article for Re-Imagining Social Change in which they noted, “even if education funders don’t see themselves as immigrant rights funders, most of them serve children of immigrants and immigrant students. These students are in almost every early childhood center, school district, and university in the country.”
We must make the invisible visible. It is critical that we advocate at the community level for education policies and programming that help secure the futures of immigrant-origin youth, while also encouraging philanthropists and federal, state, and local governments to provide financial support to create needed systemic change.