Trump’s immigration policies are making learning difficult for America’s youth, report says

"We have one student who had attempted to slit her wrists because her family has been separated and she wants to be with her mother."

(Photo: Getty Images)
(Photo: Getty Images)

Title I schools with a high percentage of schoolchildren from low-income homes face achievement gaps due to issues like delinquency, poverty, and illiteracy. In a new University of California at Los Angeles report, researchers are finding that immigration enforcement operations under the Trump administration could exacerbate those gaps at schools with large populations of children who have undocumented parents. 

Thousands of school administrators nationwide are noticing that President Donald Trump’s immigration policies place great stress and emotional anxiety on children afraid that they would come home to an empty house without their immigrant parents, according to the working paper published Wednesday. Anxious and stressed out children become too concerned about their relatives to focus on academics, which school administrators say has vexed teachers to close the achievement gap. Over the past year, school administrators have noticed impaired academic success among students, especially those with undocumented family members.

“At the end of the day, as long as these parents are targeted or losing their jobs because they’re targeted, these kids are going to continue to bring their anxiety, their stress and it’s going to disrupt the whole school,” Dr. Patricia Gándara, one of the report authors and co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, told ThinkProgress.

Gándara and report co-researcher Jongyeon (Joy) Ee surveyed issues including the decline of achievement, absenteeism, and kids experiencing emotional problems. The research report indicated that almost 90 percent of administrators observed behavioral or emotional problems in immigrant students; 84 percent of educators said students had concerns with immigration enforcement issues at school; 68 percent of administrators said absenteeism was a problem; and 70 percent of administrators and certified staff reported academic decline among immigrant students (a term that researchers used to include both U.S.-born children of immigrant parents and schoolchildren born in other countries).


Absenteeism could directly impact school funding, making it harder to improve test scores and narrow achievement gaps. Teachers can lose their jobs when class size becomes too small, and as researchers pointed out, “the empty seats are a reminder to everyone in the class that some of their classmates are missing.”

Out of a total of 5,438 respondents, 3,500 individuals said they had observed some change in students’ behaviors as a result of immigration enforcement operations. The survey reached 730 elementary and secondary schools in 12 states with heavy representation from Title I (low-income) schools.

Students aren’t scared without reason. Since his November 2016 election victory, President Donald Trump passed a series of executive orders authorizing the detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants living in the country, regardless of the positive equities they may have brought to their families and communities. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Acting Director Thomas Homan has often said that “no population is off the table” and warned the undocumented population in December, “if you’re in the country illegally, we’re looking for you.” Arrests of immigrants in the interior of the country — or areas past the 100-mile border zone that wraps around the United States — increased 25 percent for the 2017 year as compared to the same time period in 2016.

School administrators told researchers how students often spoke about fear, separation, anxiety, stress, and depression during class. A troubling pattern emerged, especially when the “worst” happened — when ICE agents took away immigrant parents. Behavioral issues surfaced in the form of crying, refusing to speak, being distracted and acting anxious or depressed, according to the report.


“We have one student who had attempted to slit her wrists because her family has been separated and she wants to be with her mother,” one Maryland educator wrote in an open-ended question as part of the report’s survey. “She literally didn’t want to live without her mother.”

“As an art teacher I saw many students drew and colored images of their parents and themselves being separated, or about people stalking/hunting their family,” an art teacher from Texas said.

Even after controlling for bias of respondents who are more likely to report issues only if they noticed trends among students, Gándara and Ee found that schools in both southern and western U.S. states were more likely to describe situations of children living in fear and indirectly putting an “enormous burden” on educators to take on the dual roles of teacher and psychologist. Gándara explained that the geographic disparity in responses made sense. Southern states tend to have a “more conservative view of immigration” and fewer “sanctuary movements,” she said, where cities and advocacy organizations actively resist detention efforts by refusing to collaborate with federal agents. And western states generally have more “sanctuary” places but also more undocumented immigrants. California, for example, has immigrant-friendly policies, but it has also endured a series of raids where ICE agents have detained hundreds of immigrants.

Gándara acknowledges that concerns over deportation fears predate the Trump administration. After all, former President Barack Obama was called the “deporter-in-chief” when his administration took part in more than two million deportations. But she also said that the type of immigration enforcement has been noticeably different. End-of-year government enforcement and removal data from December showed that roughly one in four immigrants did not have criminal convictions on record at the time of their arrest. Federal immigrants have arrested many immigrant parents. Some parents were even detained while trying to adjust their legal statuses. Gándara’s explanation was also confirmed by former Deputy Secretary of Department of Homeland Security Elaine Duke who said in January that her organization “used to distinguish between border security and interior enforcement. Now we’re lumping it all under border security.”

Gándara said it would help school, particularly Title I schools with these populations, to equip teachers with legal resources so they wouldn’t be sacked with the burden of not knowing how to respond to immigrant families. She recommended that schools work with local law schools and NGOs to put together “toolkits” of basic information for parents to carry in their wallets to hand to an immigration officer.

“Schools need more information,” she explained. “They need legal help. They’re constantly prevailed on to give information to families who ask about their legal rights. ‘What they can do? What they can’t do? Are their children safe?'”


“It is painfully evident that as long the parents and family members of immigrant students are losing their jobs and living in fear, the students and their schools will continue to bear the brunt of these policies,” the report explained. “The students, the great majority who are U.S. citizens, will continue to be distracted in class, miss school when there are fears of raids or a parent is deported, and even give up on their educations, seeing few possibilities for their future… And their schools and teachers will be branded as failures, because in the face of this they have been unable to raise students’ test scores. This is the result of unintended consequences of an immigration enforcement policy that did not consider how it might affect the nation’s most vulnerable schools.”