Education and Employment
Whenever large numbers of immigrants arrive in any particular locality, the discussion immediately pivots to the burdens these newcomers may place on numerous systems, especially on schools and healthcare facilities. Will the children and youth become community assets? How long will it take for these young people to contribute to the local community? What needs to happen to facilitate their integration and meaningful participation in the wider community at the local level? What challenges will these youngsters face and how can they overcome them? Next, I examine some of these integration issues in a more systematic way, beginning with schools and education to determine whether the alleged burdens are real or exaggerated.
Are Newly Arriving Immigrant Children Stressing the Public School System?
The US Supreme Court in its seminal 1982 decision Plyler v. Doe held that children in the United States, irrespective of their immigration status, have a constitutional right to free public elementary and secondary education. The Court recognized the importance of access to education by noting, “it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he [or she] is denied the opportunity of an education,” and it acknowledged that education is a child’s only path to becoming a “self-reliant and self-sufficient participant in society.” The Supreme Court’s decision applies to the newly arrived Central American children and youth as well. They have not only the right to public education but also an obligation to attend school if they are of school age.
Although required by law to attend school, in some jurisdictions the newly arrived immigrant students have faced challenges enrolling in public schools. Approximately 2500 children were released in 2014 to families residing on Long Island in New York (Tisch 2014). There were attempts to bar some of these children from enrolling in Long Island Public Schools because their families could not gather the requisite documents proving that they were residents of the district or that they had guardianship of the children. These obstacles contravened legal guidance on enrollment procedures issued by the New York State Education Department.
Concern over similar deterrents across the country led Attorney General Eric Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan to chide districts for “raising barriers for undocumented children” in violation of the 1982 Supreme Court decision that guarantees their right to an education. Chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, Merryl Tisch
(2014), took a strong stand, noting that, “New York has long been a beacon for immigrants fleeing violence and poverty and in search of a better life. For centuries our public schools have been the equalizer that have helped assimilate new arrivals and prepare them to achieve the American Dream.”
Fortunately, the situation improved once light was shed on the problem. A growing number of municipal authorities and local advocates are educating schools on the right of undocumented children to enroll in school, and they are working with parents and community members to guide them through the enrollment process. In New York City the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs and the Department of Education stationed representatives at the federal immigration court to directly address the education needs of unaccompanied children in deportation proceedings. New York City Schools Chancellor, Carmen Farina, said: “We are united across City agencies to support the unique needs of these students so they can thrive both in the classroom and beyond” (Office of the City of New York 2014). There is a need to ensure that similar initiatives are promoted in all localities where undocumented children reside.
Beyond enrollment, some fear that the newly arriving Central American children are draining the resources of the US public education system. Undeniably, non-native English speaking students have been the fastest-growing population in many public school districts, but that growth is not a recent phenomenon. It dates back to the 1990s when the foreign-born population in the United States grew by 11 million people, or 58 % (Bump et al. 2005).
Given the growth of the foreign-born population, the addition of Central American students, though significant in some locations, was manageable—but not without impact on public school systems. The Los Angeles Unified School District experienced a 24 % increase in Salvadorans and a 21 % increase in Guatemalans in the 2013-2014 school years. The Houston Independent School District reported a 49 % increase over the past two years in recently arrived children from Central America. Last year, the district enrolled 910 new students from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, and it expects hundreds more in 2016 (Campo-Flores and Jordan 2014).
Montgomery County in Maryland reported 19,000 limited English proficient students enrolled in school in the 2013-2014 school years. The school authorities indicated that newly arriving Central American children added 800 students. The Fairfax school system in Virginia has enrolled 6000 foreign-born students since 2011. Officials from both jurisdictions emphasized that dealing with students with no or limited English is not new to them, and they are prepared to deal with the issue pedagogically as they have experienced English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers and subject matter teachers familiar with foreign-born students and their educational needs (Gozdziak 2014b).
Culturally and linguistically sensitive pedagogical approaches, though extremely important, are not the only issues schools serving newly arrived immigrant children are facing. School administrators indicated that for some underfunded public schools, the increased number of students wanting to enroll in school poses a challenge. With all hands on deck, schools are barely able to register new students, but without extra resources they can do little in terms of ensuring appropriate placement of school-age children arriving from Central America.
Placing newly arrived Central American youth in a US school setting needs to be done with care and should consider factors other than age. The assessment, at minimum, needs to take into consideration the students’ levels of literacy and numeracy in their native language, the number of years they have spent in school, and the length of time since they participated in a formal educational program. Without this information newly arrived immigrant students might not receive the necessary support to address their academic needs. Inappropriate placement may limit immigrant students’ educational achievements in a US school, or worse, increase dropout rates or discourage them from attending school in the first place.
Interviews with staff of the Internationals Network for Public Schools, a group of schools catering exclusively to recently arrived foreign-born students, stressed the importance of doing things right from the beginning. They emphasized tailoring educational approaches to address the unique experiences of the newly arrived immigrant students through formal schooling, English language training, and meeting social and emotional needs. Several teachers emphasized the impor?tance of a holistic assessment and placement in a learning environment commensurate with the students’ educational and social needs. Some public school districts (e.g., the Oakland Unified School District and San Francisco Unified School District) have indeed recognized the necessity to approach the newly arrived students holistically and have instituted a case management model to provide for their educational and psychosocial needs.
Research shows that English Language Learners (ELLs) who “arrived” at school when they were ages 12-15 had the “greatest difficulty and were projected to require as many as six to eight years to reach grade-level norms in academic achievement when taught entirely in the second language” (Faltis 2011). These kinds of findings lead to immigrant students being placed in ESL classes instead of mainstream classrooms. As a result, the students may spend years in a “linguistic ghetto” with little access to classes that prepare them for graduation. This also may limit their interaction with a more linguistically, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse body of students (Ramirez et al. 1991).
To counter this silo approach, the Internationals Network promotes heterogeneous and collaborative groupings of students with respect to English proficiency level, academic background, native language, and literacy levels. Grouping students heterogeneously benefits all students by enabling them to teach one another as well as to learn from each other. The program staff argues that if students are not organized into collaborative groupings and are not working on projects that require joint effort, there is little opportunity for them to benefit from the diversity their classmates bring.
Undoubtedly, this kind of deliberate, tailored approach requires highly qualified educators and financial resources. This method is especially needed in schools with sizable numbers of newly arrived students from Central America, such as schools on Long Island and in the South Bronx, where unaccompanied children can constitute up to 15 % of the student body. Communities and school districts need to take the long view and assess the long-term benefits of investing in the newly arrived children and adolescents.