Failure of American Education For Mass of 22 Million

Despite the Plyler v. Doe ruling that grants undocumented immigrants the right to basic public education in the U.S., illegal immigrants have been continually denied the right to attend school and discouraged by school policies that threaten their safety in the U.S.

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Cover Image
By Serena Chan

The first co-ed college in the U.S. wasn’t founded until 1833. Segregation in American public education only officially ended in 1954 after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling. Even after the acceptance of women into higher education and the abolition of Jim Crow laws, both women and African Americans were denied equal access to education due to overt racism and misogyny.

Though the ban on African Americans and women accessing education has been lifted, marginalized groups are still not provided with the same educational opportunities in 2018. Nonetheless, they are granted “equal” access to public education, and higher education is available for every citizen residing in the United States. Therefore, it is inconceivable that America continues to deny a population of possibly more than 22 million residing in the U.S. an education.

Our educational system has become a weapon against undocumented immigrants living in the United States. School systems across the U.S., from conservative states to sanctuary cities, have been denying undocumented immigrants the right to attend public schools in order to discourage them from staying in the country.

This is illegal. The Texas Legislature passed a law preventing undocumented immigrants from enrolling in Texas public schools in 1975. The Tyler Independent School District of Texas chose to implement a policy that required undocumented immigrants to pay tuition instead of rejecting them from the education system. When a group of undocumented Mexican students refused to pay tuition and were denied schooling, they began a lawsuit that challenged the school policy, which was subsequently deemed unconstitutional and rejected by the local court. Unable to accept the local court’s ruling, the school superintendent, James Plyler, appealed to the Supreme Court. In the Supreme Court ruling of Plyler v. Doe made in 1982, the Supreme Court stood by Texas’s federal court rulings and reaffirmed that the undocumented immigrants should have access to free public education. They reaffirmed that the immigrants were under the jurisdiction of the 14th Amendment, which grants the equal protection of laws to anyone living within the U.S.

This Supreme Court ruling, however, did not stop public schools from implementing policies that continue to deter undocumented families from going to school. The American education system continues to oppress undocumented immigrants by taking advantage of their illegal status in the U.S.

Just 10 years after Plyler v. Doe, California passed California Proposition 187, which banned undocumented immigrant children from attending public primary and secondary schools. The proposition required school districts to “verify the legal status of each child enrolled within the district and the legal status of each parent or guardian of each child.” If students failed to validate their status but continued to attend school, California then threatened those undocumented students with prospective deportation by requiring schools to notify federal immigration authorities of their immigration status. Once again, in 2006, the Elmwood Park District of Illinois prevented an Ecuadorian girl holding an expired tourist visa from attending public high school on the basis of her undocumented status. Despite these measures having been rendered ineffective by federal laws, the damage was already done. After Proposition 187, the number of Latino students attending school in California diminished, and the teen who applied to the Elmwood Park school had fled the state in fear of being deported.

More shockingly, even so-called “sanctuary cities” with high populations of undocumented immigrants have unnecessary barriers preventing illegal immigrants from accessing basic education. According to a study by the NYCLU in 2014, 75 school districts in NYC ask for a child's birth certificate upon enrollment, 16 school districts require a student's immigration status, and 10 school districts require parents’ social security information. Despite policies that outlaw these barriers for enrollment of undocumented children, an overwhelming number of school districts have not complied with the law, and almost all of the public schools in NYC require families to provide proof of residency. Undocumented families are pressured to comply with these policies because many of them don’t realize that these practices are outlawed. This serves as a further impediment for any undocumented family that does not want its information being exposed to federal immigration authorities that may use it to justify deportation. Even for the few undocumented families that recognize the illegitimacy of these policies, they are hesitant to reach out for help from authorities because of their immigration status and their fear of expulsion. Not only are undocumented students directly targeted in our education system, but legal students with undocumented parents are similarly deterred from education when they are pressured to submit confidential social security and residence information that may put their parents at risk.

Though some of the enrollment policies do pose barriers for undocumented immigrants, it is important for schools to have a list of the identities of their students. Information such as the student’s date of birth and residency is crucial for schools to keep track of. It is indisputable that schools require this information, but the measures they take to acquire the information should not threaten undocumented immigrants. Measures that require families to disclose their immigration status should be made voluntary, and alternative methods of acquiring this information without the disclosure of immigration status should be provided. Schools can also request this information after enrollment to prevent illegal immigrants from being discouraged by the school application process.

While basic public education is compulsory by law for everyone under the Plyler v. Doe ruling, no law states that higher education is compulsory and that everyone must have equal access to higher education. Unfortunately, the lack of protection extended to illegal immigrants regarding their right to a higher education has been taken advantage of by states that want to promote an anti-illegal immigrant agenda. Georgia passed a ban in 2010 that barred undocumented immigrants from enrolling in top public universities in the state and paying lower in-state tuition to public colleges. Most recently, Georgia had passed an "anti-sanctuary campus bill" that prevented private universities in the state from adopting policies to protect their undocumented students in 2017. Similar restrictive policies instituted in Alabama and South Carolina take their anti-illegal immigrant sentiments even further by barring undocumented immigrants from public universities in the state altogether. These restrictive policies are still upheld by the state’s federal court due to the colleges being higher educational institutions, not basic education deemed necessary under federal law.

As postsecondary degrees become more and more essential in the job market, many undocumented immigrants are forced to forgo their career choices and education entirely due to their inability to attend public universities. Private universities with hefty price tags are not a choice for these undocumented families who lack the financial ability to pay for their children’s education. Even for the few undocumented immigrants that are able to pay for private universities, Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina have made it clear that their private universities will not respect undocumented immigrants as students with the fundamental right to learn and will violate that right by persecuting them on the grounds of their illegal status. As a result, these states foster a society that continues to trap potentially skilled undocumented immigrants in a cycle of low-skilled labor and poverty. They struggle between wanting to contribute to the U.S. economy more meaningfully through higher skilled jobs that require higher education and the reality of lower-wage, low-skill jobs that they are forced into.

Those who administer these cruel policies justify them by pointing to the amount of tax dollars native-born Americans must spend educating undocumented immigrants. Anti-illegal immigration advocates claim that it takes a total of $59.8 billion to fund public education for undocumented children, children who have undocumented parents, legal immigrant students, and refugees. This $59.8 billion, provided by the American taxpayer, is being redirected to support illegal immigrant education and providing programs such as English Language Learners (ELL) and English as Second Language (ESL) that help immigrants with limited English proficiency master English and assimilate into American schools. Allowing undocumented immigrants access to higher education would put even more strain on taxpayers, who already are paying for undocumented children’s primary education.

But the same proponents also ignore that undocumented immigrants, if equipped with higher education and given the freedom to work higher paying jobs, would be able to contribute an annual increase of $42 billion to the U.S. economy. These undocumented immigrants include the DREAMers, who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children under the age of 16. They are under the protection of the DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, program created by the Obama administration. DACA allows DREAMers to go to school and work in the U.S. without facing the risk of deportation. According to the American Action Forum, DACA recipients are employed in every U.S. industry, and each of the recipients contributes an average of $109,000 to the annual U.S. GDP. This altogether adds up to around a $42 billion annual increase in GDP, resulting in higher tax revenues for the U.S. government. The DREAMers’ success reflects the clear benefits of educating undocumented immigrants and allowing them to work higher wage jobs with access to American higher education.

Still, critics would argue that $42 billion is less than the $59.8 billion in taxes that Americans would have to pay to educate people like the DREAMers. However, they neglect the fact that the $59.8 billion doesn’t exclusively represent the cost of educating undocumented immigrants. $59.8 billion is an inflated cost representing public education of legal refugees, more than 37 million legal immigrants, legal citizens with undocumented parents, and illegal immigrant children. Services such as ESL and ELL must be provided regardless of the presence of illegal immigrant children. While $59.8 billion is far greater than the actual cost of public education extended to illegal immigrant children, DREAMers represent only a portion of illegal immigrant children who are able to contribute meaningfully to the U.S. economy. The DREAMers program does not encompass all the undocumented and educated youths in the U.S. That being said, undocumented youths who are not DREAMers, along with DREAMers, possibly contribute much more than $42 billion annually to the U.S. economy, whereas far less than $59.8 billion is spent on educating them.

On the other hand, those who firmly refuse to acknowledge the benefit of educating undocumented immigrants seem to have no qualms about spending their tax dollars on funding ICE, or the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. According to the National Immigration research forum, ICE spends an exorbitant $3.1 billion on arresting and detaining undocumented immigrants as of 2018. Because of new Trump administration policies calling for the immediate detention and deportation of “all removable immigrants,” ICE’s spending has increased dramatically from $2.3 billion in 2016 to $3.1 billion in 2018 as it began to apprehend low-priority undocumented immigrants for removal. As a result, detention facilities must be expanded and more tax money must come out of U.S. citizens’ pockets as they fund beds and living expenses of detained immigrants that for the most part, commit little to no crime. Not only is it nearly impossible to deport more than 22 million illegal immigrants, ICE detainment and deportation also cost tax dollars that can be better spent on the education of undocumented children, who tend to contribute back to the U.S. economy more often.

That being said, ridding the U.S. of 22 million undocumented immigrants is not a plausible resolution to relieving the high tax burdens that U.S. workers and citizens face. Those continuing to justify the deprivation of education for undocumented immigrants and supporting their deportation are confining illegal immigrants to a helpless state where they are unable to contribute meaningfully. While arguing that illegal immigrants will hurt native taxpayers and the economy, they refuse to let illegal immigrants contribute to the economy by denying their right to public and higher education. Despite being presented with the fact that undocumented immigrants, when educated and free to pursue higher education, boost the tax revenue of American citizens overall, opponents of undocumented immigration continue to push forward their policies, restricting undocumented immigrants from getting an education. These policies are not founded upon practicality, but upon venomous xenophobia and nativism, which are fostered by unreasonable fear toward undocumented immigrants.

Protecting undocumented immigrants’ right to education—both primary and higher—means that we must dispel the fear and anger often directed at them. The current administration has done nothing but perpetuate growing fear and nativism. To combat this nativism, media and education all have a role in portraying illegal immigrants not as a group of thieves and criminals, but as humans who are deserving of fundamental rights and equal opportunities. To prevent the circumvention of laws that protect undocumented immigrants’ rights, authorities should respect the immigration status of those that seek help. By keeping the identity of undocumented immigrants confidential and portraying a more accurate depiction of undocumented immigrants, we are taking a step closer to not only protecting the essential rights of undocumented immigrants, but also dispelling the strong xenophobia that persists in the U.S.