Mirna Vasquez hugs her teacher, Maria Victoria Mendoza, in her classroom in Brentwood, N.Y.
Mirna Vasquez hugs her teacher, Maria Victoria Mendoza, in her classroom in Brentwood, N.Y. Michael Noble Jr./AP

Anxiety and absenteeism are on the rise in public schools with large immigrant populations, according to a new UCLA study, and academics are suffering.

At the Tolleson Elementary School District in Phoenix, Arizona, the school day begins with an expression of hope: After the pledge of allegiance, the kids recite the “Kids at Hope Pledge”—part of a methodology the system uses.

“I am talented, smart, and capable of success,” the pledge goes. “I have dreams for the future and I will climb to reach those goals and dreams every day.”

But maintaining that sense of optimism has been a challenge recently, says district superintendent Lupita Ley Hightower, because so many students are experiencing anxiety related to their immigration status. The student body in this district is 82 percent Latino. Administrators and teachers don’t ask about the legal situation of their parents or students, so they don’t know how many are undocumented. Attendance at activities like legal assistance forums for parents suggests that the numbers are significant. Some students have already had parents deported; others have seen friends and their families targeted with arrest and detainment. “When they feel this anxiety and stress about being deported, they feel hopeless and depressed,” Hightower says.

That anxiety is an ongoing reality in U.S. schools with a high immigrant population. It affects not only those who have undocumented parents, but their classmates. “They were their friends and now they’re gone, from one day to the next,” says Patricia Gándara, a UCLA researcher and co-director of the university’s Civil Rights Project. “And then the other students wonder if it can happen to them.”

Gándara co-authored a new report to study this problem and identify how the immigration policies of the Trump administration have affected students in the past year. Surveying 5,400 teachers and administrators in 730 schools across the United States, they found clear effects on students’ behavior and emotional well-being. Ninety percent of principals said they’d observed behavioral and emotional problems in their immigrant students; more than two-thirds also noted similar issues in students who are not directly targeted, like friends and colleagues. “It seems to affect everyone,” says Gándara.

This anxiety also manifested in students’ grades: 70 percent of respondents said that the academic results of immigrant students dropped this year, and 1 in 6 counselors said that this problem is extensive. Many respondents spoke of students who simply “gave up” on school after a parent was deported. Others were haunted by the prospect of losing one or both parents: A fourth-grade teacher in the Northeast described to researchers how one student “told me that her mom is teaching her how to make food and feed her baby sister, in case the mom is taken away.”

Absenteeism was another issue, noted by 68 percent of administrative staff in all regions. “I have heard students say that they do not want to come to school, in case their parents are deported,” said a teacher from Texas. Parent involvement suffered accordingly: Not only has the threat of deportation and raids kept parents from going to school events, they have also caused others to lose jobs, impacting the time they have to accompany their children.

For teachers, this made their jobs even more challenging; many of the most heavily impacted schools are located in low-income communities, and resources to deal with the crisis are scarce. “They tell us that they are very stressed,” says Gándara. “They know [their students] very well. When they have children so young crying, it affects them, too.” To address the problem, teachers are asking for more forums with the school community to better explain immigrant rights—and more legal counseling. “There is no school that wants to cooperate with ICE. They want to teach,” she says. “But many parents aren’t trusting.”

Some districts are making efforts to stress that message. In Oakland, California, for example, district superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell recently outlined protocols designed to protect students from immigration enforcement at school. “We want to remind everyone that Oakland Unified School District is a Sanctuary District inside a Sanctuary City located in California, a Sanctuary State,” she said in a message sent to students, family and staff. “That means your state, city and school district support you no matter where you came from or how you got here.”

Despite such supportive efforts, Gándara fears that the negative effects of the current crackdown on immigration status could linger for decades.

“Many first-generation immigrants are the best students. The teachers tell us that,” she says. “They’re the most devoted to their studies and most ambitious. We are going to suffer because of this, and in the long term it will affect us immensely.”

This story originally appeared in Spanish on our sister site, CityLab Latino.

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