The blog of the Urban Institute
February 2, 2021

Four Takeaways on How Children of Immigrants Fit in Education Policy

Nationwide, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced teachers, students, and parents to adapt to a new educational landscape. But for the one-quarter of children who had an immigrant parent in 2019, the challenges of distance, hybrid, and even in-person learning can be compounded by xenophobia, cultural and language barriers, and technology gaps.

For Araceli Torres, a single mother and Mexican immigrant living in Coachella, California, the COVID-19 pandemic has meant her 17-year-old son has to help his 6-year-old brother with homework while she’s at work, Torres told Rikha Sharma Rani of the New York Times. But she worries there’s no one to help him. When she tries to ask his teachers how he’s doing, she writes her emails in Spanish and uses Google Translate, hoping the translations are correct.

Torres isn’t alone. These struggles are common for immigrant families forced to navigate an unfamiliar education system that lacks sufficient resources and supports. We spoke with Urban Institute education policy experts Tomás Monarrez and Matt Chingos to understand how children of immigrants are currently served in education policy, how they’ve been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and how the Biden administration can help alleviate the barriers they face. Monarrez and Chingos offered four takeaways.

  1. Immigrant families are less likely to have cultural knowledge of school assignment and school choice

    The American public school system is not always intuitive. States create school districts, and those districts’ school boards typically draw school boundaries and determine school feeder patterns. For most children, that means they are zoned to a public school depending on their neighborhood, but parents can sometimes access other schools through magnet, charter, private school voucher, and interdistrict choice options. It’s a system that can be hard to understand for people born into it, much less a family new to the country.

    “It’s this institutional knowledge about how public schools work in the US,” Monarrez said, citing his own experience moving to El Paso from Mexico. “Children of immigrants are at a disadvantage not knowing the game and finding out too late that maybe the high school they’re assigned to doesn’t have a second-language program.”

    With more than 13,000 local education agencies nationwide, each dictating how their public school system operates, more information on school assignment, translated to meet local language needs, can help immigrant families make informed choices about their children’s education.
  2. Neighborhood segregation often pushes immigrant families toward lower-quality schools

    Even for immigrant families who are familiar with the US education system, many find themselves settling in segregated neighborhoods, Monarrez said. After decades of discriminatory policies and disinvestment driven by structural racism, many of these neighborhoods’ schools are underfunded and low performing. And although students are often segregated by school and district, their teachers are still primarily white. Monarrez is contributing to a large body of research that shows having teachers with a similar racial background can boost student success. He said similar cultural and language match could have an influence on the educational success of children in immigrant families.

    Research shows segregated educational experiences can have long-term consequences on children’s health, education, and job prospects. And children of immigrants, especially those in mixed-status families, have less access to private and safety net resources that could help alleviate adverse effects. When schools first went online, Araceli Torres didn’t have a laptop, so her two sons had to do their homework on borrowed cell phones.
  3. Remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic may exacerbate language barriers

    For many families, not just immigrant families, acquiring the technology needed for remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic is only the first hurdle. Many schools only provide information to parents in English, making it difficult for parents who primarily speak another language to stay on top of what’s happening in their child’s education.

    With remote learning, these language barriers are doubled. Children and parents not only have to translate school materials, but they have to do so without the benefit of face-to-face conversation. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the most vulnerable children of immigrants… are going to be more likely to not enroll—or to be enrolled, but just nominally—and not attend any of their Zoom calls,” Monarrez said.
  4. The Biden administration can open educational pathways by “lifting the cloud” of xenophobia

    Under the Trump administration, immigrant families faced anti-immigrant rhetoric and racism, Chingos said, but former president Trump leaving office doesn’t mean that atmosphere of hate disappears. With federal influence on K–12 education limited for any administration, the most effective federal education policy for children of immigrants may entail lifting this cloud of fear by reforming immigration and enforcement policy. On Biden’s first day in office, he started to enact these reforms with a series of executive orders and a proposed immigration bill, and more is expected.

    Changing the direction of immigration policy could also change how children of immigrants think about their future, Monarrez added. Without the constant cloud of uncertainty and fear, Monarrez believes young immigrants and children of immigrants can pursue more pathways to success, such as seeking out secondary degrees.

    Changes at the federal level can also catalyze changes among state and local governments. States can direct resources to immigrant communities and fund services that benefit children of immigrants, such as bilingual programs. They can also incentivize hiring teaching staff with relevant cultural and linguistic competencies. School districts can provide accessible information to families and invest in translation and interpretation. Both states and districts can address ongoing technology gaps.

With children of immigrants being such a large share of the next generation, opening pathways to improve their well-being is critical. But more targeted data and research are needed to understand how immigrant families are affected by state and local education policies. For example, we can measure neighborhood segregation using Census Bureau data but lack data to monitor educational outcomes for children of immigrants because immigrant parentage isn’t usually collected in education databases. Instead, researchers rely on imperfect proxies, such as English learner status.

Better data and targeted assistance at the federal, state, and local levels can help address existing education disparities, unlocking the potential of our next generation.

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