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Research Questions

  1. How many undocumented and asylum-seeking children arrived from FYs 2017 through 2019 in the United States from Mexico and Central America, where are they, and what factors affect how many might arrive over the next several years?
  2. What are the federal and state policy landscapes for the education of undocumented and asylum-seeking children?
  3. What approaches are school systems taking for these children's education?
  4. How can state and local education systems be prepared and supported?

Migration over the U.S. southwest border in the past decade has been composed of growing numbers of undocumented and asylum-seeking families and children from Mexico and Central America, with larger increases starting in fiscal year (FY) 2017. By U.S. law, states must provide education to all children, regardless of immigration status. Yet sufficient information needed for policymaking is lacking, in particular about the ages and geographic locations of the children by state and district, needs for teachers and staff to accommodate these children, and experiences and good practices in schools. To fill this gap, the authors model the numbers of such children by state between FYs 2017 and 2019, review the federal and state policy landscapes for their education, and provide case studies of how schools are managing education for these children in Jefferson Parish Schools in Louisiana and Oakland Unified School District in California.

The report specifically aims to help various stakeholders understand the broad range of issues and implications related to population increases in undocumented and asylum-seeking children over the southwest border, including the affordances and challenges of current federal and state immigration policies, numbers of school staff necessary to serve these students, and critical strategies and remaining challenges for supporting these children in U.S. school systems. The authors offer recommendations to school leaders, state officials, and federal policymakers about how to better provide education for this population and support schools in doing so.

Key Findings

  • Growing numbers of undocumented and asylum-seeking children from Central America and Mexico are arriving in the United States.
  • Approximately 575,000 were encountered by federal officials at the southwest border from FYs 2017 through 2019, and 321,000 were enrolled in U.S. schools in 2020.
  • California, Texas, Florida, New York, Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, Georgia, North Carolina, and Louisiana together account for about 75 percent of the recent arrivals.
  • To support these recent arrivals without changing teacher-student and staff-student ratios, school systems in each of seven states would have needed to hire at least 1,000 additional teachers and at least 1,000 additional other teaching and administrative staff.
  • Federal law establishes the rights of these children to public education, regardless of immigration status. States take different approaches to policies regarding immigration and enforcement and K–12 educational pedagogy and resources, contributing to a complex education policy context.
  • The two case study school districts, Jefferson Parish Schools and Oakland Unified School District, were making efforts to provide quality education for this population and address challenges through innovating and learning. Particular challenges were related to enrollment, English-language learning and academics, nonacademic supports, and teacher training. Useful approaches included specialized staff, language supports, referrals to nonacademic services, treating students' backgrounds as an asset, and trauma-informed instruction.
  • Gaps remain in the supports needed in the education of these newcomers, including those related to data, educational resources, funding, and nonacademic supports.


  • Develop policies and processes to address the initial needs of undocumented and asylum-seeking children when they cross the border.
  • Develop and improve definitions, data, and information sources to support national policymaking.
  • Create agreements for educational records transfers with Northern Triangle countries.
  • Create opportunities for collaboration and discussion among the Office of Refugee Resettlement, community services, and local education agencies.
  • Develop policies and processes to address the needs of undocumented and asylum-seeking children when they are in K–12 schools.
  • Provide additional funding for schools with immigration surges on a rolling basis.
  • Increase funding and resources for nonacademic supports for students.
  • Strategically develop, recruit, and place professionals with relevant language and other needed skills in school districts.
  • Provide professional learning and high-quality resources to all teachers to support English-language learners.
  • Provide information and training for all school staff who engage with newly arriving children.
  • Create more-targeted career and technical education approaches.
  • Improve the evidence base about critical underresearched areas.

Research conducted by

Funding for this research was provided by gifts from RAND supporters and income from operations. The research was conducted by RAND Education and Labor.

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