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A More Complete Picture of Immigration’s Impact on U.S. Public Schools

Republicans blamed President Joe Biden for causing “chaos” in K-12 schools through his immigration policies during a U.S. House of Representatives hearing this week.

GOP lawmakers and their invited witnesses at the June 4 Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education Subcommittee hearing described a situation in which schools were overrun with migrant students. They claimed that educating these students takes away from other students’ education and argued that the influx of migrant youth poses safety concerns.

“Educating illegal immigrant children requires substantial resources, altering the learning environment for all students,” subcommittee Chairman Aaron Bean, R-Fla., said in his opening statement. “Overcrowded classrooms, the need for new facilities, and strained student-to-teacher ratios are just some of the challenges.”

An influx of newly arrived students has certainly presented challenges for some districts, but the reality is more complicated than the picture of universally felt, outright strain that emerged from the hearing.

“We certainly have been hearing from systems of very different sizes—New York being huge to small rural places—that are just receiving far more newcomers than they ever have,” said Julie Sugarman, the associate director for K-12 education research at the Migration Policy Institute’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy. “But it does tend to be localized. I don’t think it’s absolutely everywhere.”

In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plyler v. Doe that public schools cannot deny students an education because of their immigrant status, meaning that public schools are required to teach migrant children who enroll. Lawmakers in Congress aren’t ostensibly looking to override that legal holding, although it’s been proposed in the past, and the subcommittee that hosted the hearing doesn’t have jurisdiction over immigration issues.

But the hearing did put on display the intersection of education with one of the top issues in the 2024 election.

Former President Donald Trump has said he will “carry out the largest domestic deportation operation in American history” if elected in November. He has also demonized newly arrived migrants, saying people who cross the border are “dangerous,” from “mental institutions,” and have come to America to “prey on our people.” He has written on his Truth Social network that “MIGRANT CRIME IS TAKING OVER AMERICA.”

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that has developed a detailed policy agenda for the next conservative president with the help of Trump allies and former Trump administration officials, recently issued a brief calling on states to require that public schools charge unaccompanied migrant children and children of undocumented immigrant parents tuition. The foundation predicts the move would prompt lawsuits and ultimately force the conservative Supreme Court to reconsider Plyler v. Doe.

Biden has supported protections for recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which protects from deportation those who arrived in the United States as children but aren’t otherwise authorized to be in the country. Those who qualify are also eligible for work permits. Biden has also supported creating pathways to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already in the United States.

But he has embraced a harder line on immigration in recent months, supporting bipartisan legislation over the winter that would have tightened eligibility for asylum and automatically triggered expulsions of migrants if the number of people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border reached a certain threshold. (Republicans in Congress scuttled that deal at Trump’s insistence.) On Tuesday, Biden announced executive actions that will reject asylum for anyone who crosses the border illegally while border patrol agents are overwhelmed.

Here’s some of what lawmakers and witnesses said during the June 4 hearing, with context added to paint a fuller picture.

Migrant students aren’t overrunning the K-12 system, but they are making an impact

In his opening statement, Bean said “countless” students are filtering into public schools. Other lawmakers went on to paint a picture of schools flooded with migrant students.

However, in a public school system of approximately 50 million students, those born outside the United States make up a small share of the student population.

In 2021, the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey counted 649,000 children ages 5 to 17 who have been living in the United States for three years or less, and another 1.5 million immigrant children who have been living in the country for four or more years, according to a report from the Migration Policy Institute using the most recently available federal data.

In 2021, 1 percent of children ages 5-17 were foreign-born and had been in the United States less than three years; 3 percent were foreign-born and had been in the country four or more years. The remaining approximately 96 percent of students were born in the United States.

There are no precise, more recent data for the number of newly arrived children who have enrolled in U.S. public schools. But 113,495 unaccompanied children apprehended by immigration authorities to the custody of the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement from October 2022 through September 2023. Between October 2023 and April, 67,558 unaccompanied children have been transferred to the office’s custody.

These children are only a subset of children who have recently arrived in the United States, and the federal government doesn’t have data on how many of these children have enrolled in local public schools.

The New York City school district estimates 36,000 migrant students have enrolled over the past two years, and Denver schools enrolled 4,700 newly arrived students this school year. The Chicago school district estimates 8,900 migrant students are enrolled, but state figures put that number at 17,000.

In Denver, the district’s newly opened community hubs offer newly arrived families with resources including food, clothing, health care, child care, English language and GED classes, and more. But not all districts have the capacity to provide that level of services, and some are struggling to keep up with meeting basic requirements like hiring teachers certified to work with English learners.

“One of the big issues is that it’s difficult not knowing—and of course they can’t know—when kids are going to be coming,” Sugarman said. “A lot of districts have planners who think about demographics, but this is just sort of above and beyond all of that. School districts are just not very nimble when it comes to budgeting, so if you have more than a couple of kids coming that you’re not expecting, it does make it difficult to figure out where the resources are going to come from midyear.”

The 2021 Census survey found that places that tend to feel it most acutely are states like California, Florida, New York, and Texas that have traditionally received many immigrants. But some non-border states, including Alaska, Delaware, and West Virginia, have seen growth in the percentage of children who are immigrants in recent years, according to census data. Also in recent years, Republican officials like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have intentionally relocated new arrivals to Democratic-led places like Denver, Chicago, and the District of Columbia.

Accommodating new students is simpler in some districts than others

“It is our citizen students who miss out on a high-quality public education as funds are shifted away from classroom learning” to accommodate migrant students, Mari Barke, a member of the Orange County, Calif., school board and a Republican-invited witness at the June 4 hearing, said in her testimony.

When a migrant student enrolls in a school, the school is required to educate that student. That means the school needs to find space for that child in the appropriate grade level and provide the necessary services for that student to be successful. If the student needs English-language instruction, the district might need to hire an English-language instructor or aide to work with the student.

How challenging that is depends on state and local district budgets, as well as the infrastructure districts already have in place, Sugarman said.

“Districts do need to make choices as to what they’re funding, and sometimes, things have to be discontinued if they need to use those funds for other purposes,” she said. “But the degree to which new money has to be found or funds have to be shifted really depends on how much groundwork has been done at the district already. If you already have a lot of teachers who are well-trained to serve these kids, then you might need just a minimal number of paraprofessionals or ESL teachers to serve newcomers.”

It’s also important not to conflate a district’s per-pupil spending with the cost of educating a single new student, Sugarman said.

One of the hearing’s witnesses invited by subcommittee Republicans, Danyela Souza Egorov, the vice president of New York City’s Community Education Council 2—a local advisory board of parents and residents that evaluates education programs and holds public hearings on education matters—said the influx of migrants has cost the district around $30,000 per student because that is the current per-pupil allocation in the city’s public schools.

“It’s not quite as cut and dried as the per-pupil figure because they can absorb two or three kids with a minimal amount of additional actual cost if they don’t have to actually hire a new teacher,” Sugarman said. It’s when schools do need to hire a new teacher that enrolling new students translates into added costs, she said.

In other words, when a new student enrolls, it doesn’t necessarily add $30,000—or whatever the local per-pupil expenditure is—in costs for the school district.

Another major challenge for schools educating migrant students is the supply of English-learner teachers. The number of certified English-learner instructors dropped by about 10.4 percent in just one year, between the 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years, according to the latest federal data. English-learner instructors are also frequently among the most common positions districts struggle to fill.

Such teachers don’t only serve students newly arrived to the United States.

The majority of English learners are U.S. citizens, and not all immigrant students are English learners. But the shortage in trained educators has made it difficult in a number of districts to meet migrant students’ needs, Sugarman said.

Title III of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act provides grants to help states supplement the cost of serving English learners, whether immigrants or native-born.

During the hearing, Amalia Chamorro, the director of the education policy project at UnidosUS, a Latino civil rights advocacy group, and a witness invited by subcommittee Democrats, denounced House Republicans’ attempts to cut funding for the program in recent spending bills. A domestic spending bill backed by House Republicans would eliminate Title III funding.

“It would have a devastating effect if that program was to be eliminated,” Chamorro said. “It is a critical source of support for states and districts.”

There’s no evidence to suggest migrant students are inherently more dangerous

Another common claim made throughout the hearing was that migrant students present a safety concern.

“How many of [the migrant students] have criminal histories, affiliation with gangs, or are actually adults who are potentially infiltrating our communities and schools?” said Sheena Rodriguez, a Republican-invited witness and the president of the Alliance for a Safe Texas, which advocates tighter border security.

There aren’t any data, however, to show that immigrant students are more likely to cause violence in schools than any other subgroup of students. That kind of rhetoric can be damaging to immigrant communities , Sugarman said.

“Definitely gang involvement is a real thing in some communities,” she said. “But to what end are we saying ‘kids are in a bad situation; therefore, we shouldn’t have them in school’? That doesn’t really make sense.”

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