UnidosUS Hosts Hill Briefing for Its Latest Report on Immigration Enforcement’s Harm on Students, Schools

Text By UnidosUS Consultant Harold Maass, Video Clips by UnidosUS Videographer Elnatan Melaku Mulugeta

Current U.S. immigration policy is creating a climate of fear in American schools that is hurting children emotionally and academically, according to a new UnidosUS study released at a briefing on Capitol Hill.

The six million children who live in a household with at least one undocumented immigrant parent are particularly vulnerable, said Emily Ruskin, senior policy analyst at UnidosUS and author of the report, A Generation at Risk: The Impact of  Immigration Enforcement on UnidosUS-Affiliated Classrooms and Educators.

“This group lives in constant fear of separation due to detention or deportation,” Ruskin said. 

“This is a critical period in their lives. It’s a period when their social, their cultural, their political identities are being formed.” said Delia Pompa, senior fellow for education policy at the Migration Policy Institute’s National Center. “When they turn on their TV and hear an important person in government talking about how they’re a threat to this country, when they go down the street and hear that a neighbor has gone away and was deported to Mexico, to Honduras, to someplace, those identities that are being formed take a new shape. They change in very important ways. And so, this generation is at risk, for lots and lots of reasons.”

In a panel discussion mediated by Pompa, educators from schools with large populations of children from immigrant families said the trauma and stress generated by the daily threat of deportation and heated public discourse about immigration enforcement hurt classroom performance, discourage parental involvement in schools, and drive up rates of depression, bullying, and other problems on campuses around the nation.

Sandra Peloquin, a teacher at Lorain High School in Ohio, described a recent case in which an undocumented mother from Honduras was riding in a car stopped for a traffic violation. She was taken into custody. Border Patrol agents came and told her she could go to a detention facility alone or pick up her daughter at her elementary school first. She was taken to the school.

“The student, of course, was sobbing, seeing her mom sobbing, and she had to say goodbye to her teachers,” said Peloquin, a UnidosUS National Institute for Latino School Leaders (NILSL) Fellow.

“Since then the teacher has listened to other stories from other students…because the students are now worried police are coming for them,” she added. “This is what having border patrol in a school building has done to our community.”


NILSL Fellow John Monteleone, superintendent of the Cleveland charter school Citizen’s Academy and former superintendent of Lorain Schools, said the trauma and tension from immigration enforcement can spill over and spoil activities that are meant to be positive, such as Safety Week visits to schools by law enforcement officers.

“I had two students who wet themselves just at the sight of an officer coming into the classroom,” he said.

The report, A Generation at Risk, found that this kind of fallout is common. UnidosUS surveyed 64 K-12 educators from UnidosUS-affiliated programs who attended programmatic workshops in July and August of 2019. Ninety-two percent of respondents reported observing students directly express fear and concern over immigration enforcement. Ninety-two percent also said these concerns affected students’ ability to learn. More than half of the respondents said they had observed verbal and physical bullying at school linked to the perceived immigration status of students and their parents.

“We see policies talked about every day that limits refugee entrance into this country, makes it harder for people to come here to get asylum, characterizes immigrants as threats to both national security and the economic well-being of this country,” Peloquin said. “This generation is at risk when they see themselves being described in this way.”

NILSL Fellow Marisol Rerucha, a longtime educator and community leader, said she is a “proud American citizen,” but these conditions make her “feel betrayed by our country.”

She said the key to turning things around is providing a “healing community” in schools, for students and teachers alike. 

“You have a healing school community where you’re taking care of your staff, where staff feel at home and are not acting and living through their pain with kids, then that creates that space for them to feel safe,” she said. 

The UnidosUS report included recommendations for policy changes to address these problems. These actions included curbing regulatory abuses that harm American children in mixed-status homes, passing legislation to protect Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) recipients, and spending more to support teachers working with Latino and English learner students.

The new report is the latest in a series of resources UnidosUS’s ProgressReport.co has been posting to try and help teachers offer wrap around support to their immigrant students.

UnidosUS expects to build on this report and surrounding discussions as it prepares for the next school year and the next cohort of the National Institute of Latino School Leaders (NILSL). 2020-2021 NILSL Fellowship applications are now being accepted. For more information, contact Washington Navarrete  at [email protected]

Related Links from ProgressReport.co:

Every Child’s Right to Learn: Resources for Navigating Your Public Schools.

Help and Hope: Here Are Eight Ideas for Supporting Children Coming Out of Migrant Detention Centers

Raising Children in a Climate of Fear: A UnidosUS Resource for Programs Serving Latino Children & Families

Welcoming Central American Students in a Historically Undiverse City

LA CULTURA CURA: In the Face of Extreme Social and Political Unrest, Youth Can Find Safety and Healing in Their Roots

Headspace: Latino Students Have Plenty of Reasons to Be Stressed Out. Here Are Some Steps for Identifying and Treating Anxiety and Depression

You might also be interested in: