With Child Migrants Set to Become Students, Educators Must Prepare


Jul 14, 2014

Detainees sleep in a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility, June 18, 2014

Detainees sleep in a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility, June 18, 2014

Photo by Eric Gay/Pool/Reuters

At the center of an intensifying debate over U.S. immigration policy is an enormous wave of child migrants. Between 70,000 and 90,000 unaccompanied children are expected to cross the U.S.-Mexico border by year's end, up from about 25,000 in fiscal year 2013.

The federal government has responded to this “urgent humanitarian situation” by housing the children at military bases, shelters, and other public-sector buildings. Officials are attempting to place the migrants with parents, extended family, or sponsors before deportation proceedings can begin. Federal law forbids authorities from turning away minors from nonadjacent countries. Most of the children are fleeing El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras.

But what happens when the school year begins?

Lost in the debate is the possibility that this wave will spill from shelters to schools. In Plyler v. Doe, the Supreme Court guaranteed free K-12 public education to all children in the United States, regardless of legal status:

“[Denying education to child migrants could lead to] the creation and perpetuation of a subclass of illiterates within [U.S.] boundaries, surely adding to the problems and costs of unemployment, welfare, and crime. It is thus clear that whatever savings might be achieved by denying these children an education … are wholly insubstantial in light of the costs involved to these children … and the Nation.”

Given this reality, educators, policymakers, and other stakeholders should consider what research says about educating migrant children:

  • Migrant children are more likely to face risk factors for developmental delay and poor academic performance. For example, 28 percent of migrant children live in a household where no one 14 or older speaks English proficiently. More than one-fourth have parents who haven't finished high school, and 22 percent have family income below the poverty line. It's also likely that these children have experienced lengthy gaps in their schooling. Traumatic experiences could also be common among this group, either in their notoriously violent native countries or during their long trek through Mexico.
  • Early care and education can help migrant children. Reports suggest that most of the migrants are teens, while many could be “as young as 9 or 10.” However, many others are reportedly “barely old enough to walk,” while some have very young children of their own. But early care and education (ECE) is not guaranteed under Plyler, and migrant children face a number of obstacles to accessing ECE: legal status, language barriers, cultural sensitivities, information gaps, and parent or guardian perceptions about government services or the importance of ECE. High-quality ECE programs can produce substantial returns to society and improvements in child outcomes. Research suggests that ECE could benefit migrant children as much as, if not more than other groups.
  • School systems may need to jump-start programs for English-language learners. Title III of the No Child Left Behind Act requires that all English-language learners receive quality instruction for both English and grade-level academic content. If the migrant children attend schools in districts that haven't typically taught English-language learners (or haven't taught very many of them), they'll have to quickly hire quality teachers and locate sufficient classroom space.
  • State benefits could affect migrant success in high school. Migrant students attending high school in states that extend benefits (Medicaid, food stamps, TANF, etc.) to migrants and refugees are more likely to graduate from high school than those living in states with less generous benefits. Migrant families in more “generous” states may have greater trust in American institutions, which could help cultivate positive attitudes toward school among their children, thus boosting graduation rates.
  • In-state tuition policy could affect migrant youth's commitment to school. The extension of in-state college tuition to migrant youth sends a signal that there are opportunities for them beyond high school. Among Mexican-born, non-citizen youth, those living in states that don't offer in-state tuition to undocumented youth are 49 percent less likely to enroll in high school than peers living in states with no explicit policy. Compared to the same peer group, those in states that do offer in-state tuition to undocumented youth are 65 percent more likely to enroll in high school.

Americans are more opposed to illegal immigration than ever. And with the debate in Washington ongoing, this hot-button issue is unlikely to cool off soon.

But none of this changes the fact that tens of thousands of migrant children could soon be students in school systems across the country. To best respond to this reality, policymakers and educators will need to consider existing research to determine the best course of action.

Gabriella C. Gonzalez and Robert Bozick are sociologists at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.