GULC Report Finds Undocumented Students Face Significant Obstacles

A report from the Georgetown Law Center’s Human Rights Institute outlines the obstacles that bar newly arrived children from Central America from accessing public education in the United States due to their undocumented status.

Published April 11, the report, titled “Ensuring Every Undocumented Student Succeeds: A Report on Access to Public Education for Undocumented Children,” was authored by nine law center students as part of a yearlong project in collaboration with the Women’s Refugee Commission, a nonprofit that seeks to improve the lives of women and youth displaced by conflict.

According to the study, an estimated 770,000 of the 2.4 million school-aged immigrant children nationwide are undocumented. Since 2014, more than 100,000 unaccompanied minors have immigrated to the United States.

According to the report, undocumented students — who are obligated to attend school through at least eighth grade according to federal law — are obstructed from receiving education by residency rules and states’ strict documentation requirements, standardized test-based school evaluations, inadequate translation services and the enforcement practices of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Caroline Kurtz (LAW ’17), one of the report authors, said they decided to research the paths of undocumented students after they were released from immigration facilities.

“We knew that undocumented children were being released, so we decided to focus on what happens to them after they are released into these communities,” Kurtz said. “Are they able to receive the services they need? Are they being exploited for work? We decided to focus on education because we knew there was such a clear legal standard.”

The report specifically examined communities in Texas with long-standing immigrant populations, as well as those in North Carolina with a more recent immigrant community. As part of the yearlong process, the authors of the report travelled to both states to see firsthand how school districts accommodate, and fail to accommodate, undocumented students.

As its legal basis, the report discusses civil rights frameworks, including the implications of Supreme Court decisions such as Lau v. Nichols, which in 1974 expanded the rights of students with limited English proficiency, and Plyler v. Doe, which in 1982 struck down state laws denying educational funding for unauthorized immigrant students.

The report also highlights the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Opportunities Act of 1974, asserting that discrimination against undocumented students constitutes prejudice based on national origin.

According to Alexander Kramarczuk (LAW ’17), another author of the report, many of the emerging problems are rooted in poor communication between the federal and local governments concerning legal rights of undocumented children.

“There’s this fundamental disconnect once you get to the state and, especially, once you get to the local level,” Kramarczuk said. “Communication of that guidance from the federal level just isn’t happening so people are just unaware.”

The report cites the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which was most recently reauthorized by the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015 expanding the federal government’s role in funding public education, to demonstrate that federal law mandates that municipalities allocate funds to programs aiding English-language learners.

D.C. Schools Project tutor Benjamin Sánchez (MSB ’19) noted that many undocumented students cannot speak English, much less maneuver the complex educational system in the United States.

“Most of these undocumented students don’t know how to speak English, they just got here,” Sánchez said. “In order to engage in the American education system, they have to be able to communicate with their educators.”

The report also states that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids, which in January 2016 began targeting newly arrived women and children fleeing violence in Central America, have had a detrimental effect on the education of undocumented children. During the first weekend of 2016, over 100 individuals, mostly families with children, were taken into custody to be processed for deportation, according to the report.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization specializing in civil rights and public interest litigation, alleged in an article published Jan. 7 that ICE not only apprehended these individuals without warrants, but also forced them to sign documents they could not read, denied them counsel and took them into custody when they had not exhausted all legitimate legal options.

ICE declined The Hoya’s requests for comment.

The report claims that by engaging in widespread enforcement action, the agency has created an environment of fear that has left students distressed and unable to focus on their education. Though ICE members are not allowed to take people from school campuses into custody, they are allowed to monitor schools’ learning environments by collecting data and conducting site visits.
Hoyas for Immigrant Rights Freshmen Representative Rocío Reyes (SFS ’19) emphasized the apprehension families with undocumented members feel, which can hurt performance in school for the children.

“Essentially, if you have someone that is undocumented in your family, you just fear the point that [ICE] will get to that person,” Reyes said. “It adds fear, whether you are an undocumented child or whether you have undocumented parents. Regardless, you are unable to focus in school.”
Kurtz added that this fear can prevent many undocumented immigrants from completing routine day-to-day tasks.

“What we noticed is that there was this incredible fear that was spreading,” Kurtz said. “Even if there were no raids in a certain locality, people were petrified to leave their homes, to speak to a police officer if they needed help or to go to school.”

The report outlines a series of recommendations for providing equitable educational opportunities for undocumented children. It particularly emphasizes the need for adequate translation services, dissemination of legal information, use of performance metrics other than standardized testing in public school evaluations and reduction of ICE enforcement action.
Kramarczuk stressed the importance of ensuring access to education for undocumented students by improving channels of information between all levels of government.

“The biggest thing, at a base level, is communication between the federal government and lower levels of government,” Kramarczuk said. “It’s less that the law isn’t there, it’s that the communication isn’t there.”

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