Back-to-School Planning Must Consider Immigrant Children and Families

By Hannah Liu

As children head to school, administrators are exploring the best ways to bring kids back safely and ease parents’ anxiety. Along with addressing COVID-19 concerns, schools must uphold the rights of immigrant children to access a K-12 education and provide a welcoming environment for all children and families.

The U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (ED OCR) recently released a fact sheet detailing important information for public schools on the rights of immigrant students and their families. The fact sheet states “all children in the United States have an equal right to enroll and participate in public elementary and secondary schools without regard to their or their parents’ or guardians’ immigration status.” Moreover, the ED OCR explains that public schools are required to provide language assistance to English learner students to ensure their meaningful participation; communicate information about school programs and activities to parents, guardians, or sponsors in a language they understand; and provide interpreters if necessary. The fact sheet also provides examples of enrollment practices and other actions that may warrant an investigation. Finally, it provides guidance on how parents and other stakeholders can report possible violations to the ED OCR or the Department of Justice.

FWD.us estimates that there are approximately 620,000 K-12 undocumented students in the United States, commonly referred to as “Dreamers.” The landmark 1982 Supreme Court case Plyler v. Doe established that a state may not deny access to public education to any child residing in the state, regardless of a child’s immigration status. The court reasoned that "education has a fundamental role in maintaining the fabric of our society … [and] provides the basic tools by which individuals might lead economically productive lives to the benefit of us all." This ruling has been critical in ensuring Dreamers have access to a K-12 education for nearly 40 years. Several states have also recognized the importance of expanding access to higher education for Dreamers through state tuition equity policies

While access to a public K-12 education has long been recognized as a fundamental right,  anti-immigrant rhetoric and actions threaten this right for immigrant students and children in immigrant families. In addition to students who are Dreamers, more than 3.9 million K-12 students have an undocumented parent. Ramped-up immigration enforcement in recent years--which research shows increases absenteeism and decreases achievement--and attempts to dismantle the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program have created anxiety for these families. As a result of the U.S. District Court ruling in Texas on DACA last month, nearly 550,000 K-12 Dreamers are currently barred from applying for the program, as new applicants are no longer permitted.

Thus, schools must take affirmative steps to uphold the rights of immigrant students and families and create welcoming environments. In addition to adopting nonrestrictive enrollment practices and addressing language access, schools can also ensure staff and parents are aware that schools, other places of learning, and bus stops are protected by the sensitive locations policy, meaning immigration enforcement actions are restricted in such places. Schools can also adopt their own safe space policies to establish protocols that further protect immigrant students and families from immigration enforcement. 

Finally, it is important for schools to be aware of and cater to the specific needs of unaccompanied immigrant children (UICs), including the nearly 60,000 UICs who have been released to sponsors since October 2020. UICs often face additional challenges such as housing and food instability, limited formal education, and mental health needs. Districts and schools can help address these challenges by providing healing-centered care, specialized educational support, and access to social services. 

Helping students return to the classroom safely is a critical part of our country’s journey to recovery. By directly addressing the needs of immigrant families, schools can establish a safe and healthy learning environment while ensuring equitable access to education.

Below are some resources for schools to help meet the needs of immigrant students and families: