How Immigration Enforcement is Negatively Affecting Schools

While the number of undocumented immigrants in the country has risen to over 11.1 million people, the stigma associated with having an undocumented status affects a wider range of Americans than previously thought—and it’s an issue that threatens the academic success of many students in our schools.

In their recently released report Legal Violence: How Immigration Enforcement Affects Families, Schools, and Workplaces,” authors Cecilia Menjívar and Leisy Abrego find that the current culture of immigration enforcement creates a sense of fear and despondency that affects the community as a whole. The study is the culmination of 10 years of meticulous research, as well as over 200 in-depth interviews and surveys that explore how the consequences of increased enforcement flow through the communities where immigrants live, work, and learn. The report was released last week in tandem with a panel discussion on the subject at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC.

“We argue that the fear created by this enforcement—both real and perceived—creates the conditions for what we call ‘legal violence,’ harming immigrant incorporation into the United States,” the report summary says.

Menjivar’s and Abrego’s findings point to a system of enforcement that undermines the ability of immigrants to effectively integrate into American society. With increasingly harsher laws meant to push undocumented workers to “self-deport,” immigrants are seeing their already depleted opportunities dry up further as fears of detention and deportation become the new norms.

These perpetual fears of discovery limit the opportunities for undocumented workers and their children, many of whom were born in the United States but must still bear the stigma associated with “illegal” immigration. The report finds that the communities surrounding undocumented immigrants are also heavily influenced by immigration enforcement in the places where documented and undocumented peoples mix. In schools across the country, students who come from families with an undocumented background feel that they cannot achieve as much as their peers because of their status.

“In the schools, legal violence comes in the form of a stigma associated with an undocumented status,” says Menjívar. “We see school-age children not having incentives to do well in school, and even dropping out because there is really no future for them beyond 12th grade.”

With deportation and detention threatening to break up families because of their legal statuses, many immigrant students face strained relationships with their family members and little hope for a better life of their own outside of school. Often, the shame of an undocumented status makes it difficult for them to approach any of their educators at school for help.

“Many students expressed the mental—and sometimes physical—distress they experienced whenever they disclosed their status to a new school official,” the report says. “Unsure about teachers’ and counselors’ stances on immigration, they worried about being publicly ridiculed and targeted.”

While the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Plyler v. Doe granted undocumented and U.S. born immigrant students the right to attend schools with their peers, the push to enforce hard-line immigration laws marginalizes these students into a separate category than their peers. Even with the same school resources available to them, students with undocumented legal statuses are confined to a narrow set of opportunities school.

“Our schools certainly don’t train our young people to be undocumented immigrants,” says Roberto Gonzales, Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Administration. “But, many of them find once they leave school that their range of options are as narrowly circumscribed as their parents, and they must put aside aspirations and expectations and learn how to survive in low wage job markets.”

The report calls on Congress and the Obama Administration to address the fears and negative consequences associated with immigration enforcement, as well as to defend the rights of all its peoples equally. Only a comprehensive approach to immigration reform will achieve any real improvements, and Menjivar and Abrego urge the government to remain vigilant in its quest to improve the lives of all Americans, whether they are documented or undocumented.

“Simply put, when everyone living in the United States is able to fully integrate, our communities are better off.”