The video starts with sobbing. After dropping off her sister at school, 13-year-old Fatima Avelica sits in the back seat of her parents’ car just blocks away from her own school. She looks out the windshield as her father is arrested by federal immigration agents (watch the video at http://cnn.it/2mn2agv).
In response to the arrest, United Teachers Los Angeles issued a powerful statement saying, “Seizing parents on their way to or from dropping off their children at school will lead to students staying home, disrupting their education, and negatively impacting our learning communities. Documented or not, all children have the right to a public education free from fear and intimidation.”
It would be great if the moment a student entered the schoolhouse doors, the outside world melted away. When children feel safe and ready to learn, schools can help them build knowledge, develop skills, and become prepared to tackle new challenges on the way to lasting success.
But principals know better than most that the dividing line between what happens in school and everything that takes place outside of school is not always clear. Poor nutrition, abuse, neglect, and unhealthy living environments can all negatively affect educational—and ultimately, life—outcomes for young people.
In America today, there are nearly 6 million U.S.-citizen children living with at least one unauthorized immigrant family member. Because of immigration enforcement policy changes made throughout the early months of the Trump administration, many of these families now live in fear.
Research shows that when children have been separated from their parents, they experience classic signs of trauma, which include not only anxiety, depression, and disrupted eating and sleeping habits, but also difficulties in school. Even before a family is torn apart, children internalize the fear that their parents feel at the prospect of deportation. Often, as a parent’s anxiety and legal vulnerability increase, a child’s emotional health and academic success deteriorate.
Impact of Fear
The impact of this fear can be felt well beyond members of the unauthorized immigrant community and their loved ones. Evidence shows that Hispanic children in immigrant communities can experience psychological distress even if they simply see or hear about arrests and deportations of people around them. And just as this affects the broader community outside school, it ultimately can affect what happens inside the classroom. Earlier this year, after a series of immigration enforcement raids in Austin, TX, public school absences increased by 152 percent, according to political science professor Tom Wong from the University of California–San Diego. When children experience toxic stress at an early age, developmental science tells us that they are more likely to have difficulty with stress regulation, learning, memory, and social behavior—all of which can negatively affect the performance of individual students and their peers.
Even before the 2016 presidential election, educators helped to sound the alarm that the anti-immigrant tenor at the center of Donald Trump’s campaign was contributing to an increase in bullying and anxiety among students. As words are being converted into policies, millions of families in America are becoming acutely aware of a new reality on the ground.
A series of executive orders and public and private enforcement memos have made it clear that all unauthorized immigrants in the country are now equally subject to arrest and deportation, which essentially means that no one—or everyone—is a priority. As a result, in the early months of this administration we have seen a dramatic increase in arrests for civil immigration violations, with the largest increase taking place among longtime residents with no criminal background.
In an effort to find bipartisan solutions, Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) along with Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA) introduced the Dream Act of 2017 in July. The Dream Act would permit people that came to the country as children and have lived here for years—many for nearly their entire lives—to come forward, pass background checks, and obtain conditional lawful status that could lead to lawful permanent residence.
Nearly 800,000 of these young people have already received temporary protection from deportation and work authorization over the past five years as part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative. DACA has helped them to thrive, in part by unlocking educational opportunities for many, but constant threats are causing uncertainty and fear among DACA recipients, including the more than 100 Teach for America corps members and alums serving as “DACAmented” teachers in classrooms today.
High school principals—together with teachers, support staff, superintendents, and others in the school community—have an important role to play. NASSP has long been a champion for the just and humane treatment of students whose lives are touched by the threat of immigration enforcement. Principals occupy a unique space in our communities as educators, civic leaders, and trusted advocates for our children and their futures.
You can help by sharing with a broad audience your experiences and observations about how fear and anxiety are harming your school communities. Writing op-eds and letters to the editor in your local paper, speaking up at community meetings, or organizing your own gatherings are all critically important ways to help people understand how immigration enforcement affects all of us. You can also contact your congressional representatives, individually or together with other local educators, school psychologists, or community leaders, to let them know how your community would be strengthened if the Dream Act were enacted into law and young people were provided the opportunity to gain permanent legal status.
Editor’s note: This column reflects the state of DACA at the time it was edited for publication. For more recent developments, please visit the School of Thought blog at http://blog.nassp.org.
Tom Jawetz is vice president of Immigration Policy at the Center for American Progress.