From a Square to a Triangle: An Analysis of Modern Issues in Education and Immigration

Immigration Policy Brief #135 | By: Rudy Lurz | November 19, 2023
Photo taken from: brookings.edu

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Policy Summary:

Immigration has long been a politically charged issue. Comprehensive immigration reform has been impossible in today’s polarized climate, and has not been seriously attempted since the George W. Bush Administration.

Education as a field typically distances itself from the activist rhetoric which plagues immigration reform efforts. Public school districts pledge to educate every student. District officials do not ask about the citizenship status of a child’s parents when enrolling students. If a student’s residence is within the district borders, and their immunization status is confirmed, they are enrolled. Federal education policies such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top emphasize that all students must be educated fairly and equitably. Therefore, the only documentation that matters is a student’s performance on state assessments, verification that they do not represent a public health risk, and confirmation that their address is in the school district.

Those established policies are no longer guaranteed in this contentious political climate. Culture wars have spilled into education. Sanctuary City laws have long been a target of right-wing activists. These laws ensure that law enforcement agencies do not ask about a person’s immigration status in the course of normal duties. Policy actors on the right often mischaracterize the laws and claim that they let criminals back on the streets. These laws remain, for the moment, legal. Likewise, if a parent is enrolling her children in a school, the district will ask for her address and whether her children are vaccinated against measles; but cannot ask whether she holds a valid green card. According to the letter of the law, every city is not a sanctuary city, but every public school district is a sanctuary. 

Xenophobic policy proposals are often framed as a question of asset allocation. A frequent criticism of undocumented migrants is that government benefit programs cost money, and non-citizens should not receive benefits that rightfully belong to citizens. This has long been a contested argument associated with providing health care and other benefits for undocumented migrants. President Obama’s DACA initiative, which provided undocumented migrants who arrived as children with protection against deportation and access to work permits, has faced stiff challenges and multiple setbacks in federal courts. Fights against DACA, Sanctuary City laws, and access to government benefits have fueled anti-immigrant sentiment at the K-12 level and beyond. Proponents of anti-immigrant policies contend that if undocumented migrants should not receive social security or government-issued health insurance, then they should also not receive free or reduced lunch at schools. Some contend that they should not be able to attend public school at all. This calls attention to fundamental questions for American education. Is education a public or private good? If it is a public good, how does educating undocumented migrants contribute to the good of the country? On the flip side, how would denying undocumented migrants access to education impact the future of the United States?

Policy Analysis:

Supporters of pro-immigrant education policies are on sturdier ground than those who have utilized President Obama’s DACA initiative. FERPA provides students with strong rights to privacy in schools, especially sensitive data associated with education. It is the obligation of the executive branch to execute those established laws, and they have been affirmed by the judiciary throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries. President Obama might have over-extended his authority by pushing through the DACA initiative by executive order. Congress alone has the power to create laws. Depending on future court actions, supporters of the DACA initiative might have to start anew in Congress and individual state legislatures in order to protect immigrants who arrived as children from deportation.

On the other hand, through FERPA, children and their parents have established protection of their demographic data if that data is held by a public school. No matter how hard right-wing activists work to use education to find and remove undocumented migrants, they cannot legally get access to that information. Third party vendors with access to this information represent an end-around for the anti-immigrant activists who seek it. They know their responsibilities, however, and take the same measures as public officials in order to protect education data. Clever is an education technology company that helps districts manage data. Their CEO, Tyler Bosmeny, noted, “From our perspective, the best way to make sure a student’s immigration status isn’t getting out is to not have it in the first place.”  In today’s tech climate, where ransomware attacks and data breaches are becoming more and more commonplace, this philosophy is a logical one. 

That leaves other alternatives that seem rather punitive and cruel. Anti-immigration advocates can attempt to intimidate undocumented immigrants into not registering their children for free and reduced lunch programs, even though receipt of these benefits should not factor into the decision to grant permanent residence to that family. Fear of stepping out of the shadows keeps many families from signing up for the benefits their children are entitled to receive, and as a result, many kids go hungry. They can challenge books in the library with themes relating to immigration, and work to get them banned. They can stifle classroom discussions using so-called “anti-woke” policy measures

From my point of view as a policy analyst, these measures seem not only cruel, but also foolish. The social safety net in this country was designed for a population with a robust base of young and middle-aged workers. In 1940, there were a little over nine million Americans over the age of 65, approximately 7% of the entire population. Today that number is over 55 million, nearly 17% of the U.S. population. Social Security and Medicare depend on young workers paying into the system and a smaller percentage of older folks using the benefits. American society looks less like the triangle of the 1940s and more like a square. If it transforms to an inverted triangle and there are more people collecting benefits than there are younger workers paying into the safety net, the whole system could collapse. That is precisely the risk America faces in the near future. The birth rate in the United States, like many other developed nations, has plummeted . Deaths exceed births in most areas of the country. In addition, people are living longer. That means they will be collecting benefits for 20-30 years after retirement, instead of 10-15.

The social safety net depends on young workers paying bills so older retired folks can collect benefits. In order to confront that demographic reality, America will have to produce a second baby boom. Convincing Americans to have more children is a difficult task, considering the cost of childcare. Alternatively, we can expand legal immigration and make life easier for those who are presently seeking refuge in the country. Right now, anti-immigration activists are talking about building walls to keep people out, while also seeking to make life as uncomfortable as possible for the undocumented migrants already in the country. In twenty years, we are going to be begging young immigrants to come in.

Education is a tremendous vehicle for improving innovation and creating buy-in for a country’s ideals and values. It should be used to inspire the next generation of Americans. It should not be used as a weapon to find and expel undocumented migrants who are seeking a better life. The children of those same immigrants could soon save the nation from economic collapse. Perhaps we should provide those kids with a hot meal and a good education instead of xenophobic vitriol. 

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