Center for American Progress

How Educators and Communities Can Reduce the Fear of Deportation Among Unauthorized Students and Families

How Educators and Communities Can Reduce the Fear of Deportation Among Unauthorized Students and Families

To ensure a safe learning environment, educators need to take action to support unauthorized students and students living in mixed-status families by discouraging the presence of ICE officers on school grounds and upholding the spirit of Plyler v. Doe.

A teacher works with his student at Liberty High School in Houston, Texas, on July 1, 2014. (AP/David J. Phillip)
A teacher works with his student at Liberty High School in Houston, Texas, on July 1, 2014. (AP/David J. Phillip)

In January, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, officers apprehended Wildin David Guillen Acosta, a senior at Riverside High School in Durham, North Carolina, on his way to school. As news of similar ICE raids spreads throughout the country, unauthorized students are terrified, as are U.S. citizen students who live in mixed-status families—families with one or more unauthorized members. Many students feel the need to choose between their education and their family’s safety, even though they have the legal right to feel safe at school.

With its decision in Plyler v. Doe in 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that all children in the United States, regardless of their immigration status, are entitled to a K-12 education. Since 2014, tens of thousands of unaccompanied children leaving particularly dangerous countries in Central America to request protection in the United States have enrolled in schools across the country, and the conversation among educators surrounding how best to meet their needs is important. Guillen-Acosta is one such student, and the Durham school board has asked federal immigration authorities to allow him to stay in the district. Other U.S. school boards have written letters to federal immigration agencies in attempts to keep ICE officers away from school campuses. These districts are demonstrating that educators in schools and communities with large immigrant populations are in the position to play a critical role in mitigating the environment of heightened fear among mixed-status families and unauthorized students.

The impact of the fear of deportation on children’s academic performance

Fear of deportation and family separation causes children’s academic performance to suffer, according to a 2010 Urban Institute report that examined the consequences of parental arrest, detention, and deportation for 190 children across the United States. The same is likely true for the more than 77,000 unaccompanied children who were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border and placed into the care of a parent, relative, or family friend in the United States from August 2013 to October 2015, as well as the 5.3 million children living in the country with unauthorized immigrant parents.

In early January, President Barack Obama’s administration began to conduct a series of widespread raids on children and families who have fled Central America within the past two years. These raids have heightened fear within this community and angered immigration attorneys and advocates, who highlight the fact that many of these people failed to receive due process in their immigration proceedings.

Teachers are among the first to witness the impact that the threat of deportation can have on students. Teachers in the Durham school district, for example, have dealt with a rapid drop in attendance since Guillen Acosta’s arrest: As of February 2016, Riverside High School’s attendance had dropped 20 percent since the beginning of the school year. And even students who do attend school may face the challenge of acculturative stress—a psychosocial response to the challenges of immigration—that comes with the fear of deportation and family separation.

Schools and educators work to eradicate fear

While Guillen Acosta waits in Georgia’s Stewart Detention Center for the immigration court’s decision on whether he will be allowed to stay in Durham or be deported, Riverside High School teachers are rallying for his release. They also are mailing him his homework so that he stays on track to graduate.

Durham is not the only place where educators are taking action; immigration advocacy organizations and teachers from across the United States wrote a letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson emphasizing the need for policies to create a safe zone for all students. The letter stresses the negative impacts that the raids have had on students, including depression, anxiety, and the fact that the possible presence of ICE officers does not allow schools to offer safe zones. Although the ICE has a “sensitive locations” policy stating that it generally will not conduct enforcement actions at or near schools, the series of raids—especially those that picked up children en route to school—are causing families to doubt their safety within their own communities.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, or LAUSD, voted to prohibit ICE officers from entering school campuses until they have contacted school officials for approval. Additionally, Steve Zimmer, LAUSD school board president, presented a resolution to the school board forbidding the presence of ICE officers on campus until the LAUSD superintendent and lawyer’s office make the decision to allow it. The resolution also gives the superintendent 90 days to come up with a plan to provide assistance, information, and safe havens for students and families faced with fear and anxiety over immigration enforcement efforts. School officials’ actions are important to the protection of unauthorized students and families. According to LA School Report, an unauthorized mother who spoke to LAUSD said that she felt “relieved knowing that they can now go to school for help.”

Schools in Prince George’s County, Maryland, have implemented policies to make clear the conditions under which law enforcement officers can interview or detain children on school grounds. The CEO of Prince George’s County Public Schools wrote an open letter to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in which he expressed his concern for immigrant students who are experiencing fear and anxiety over the recent deportations.

Beyond policies that bar ICE officials from campuses, educators can also allay the fears of students and their families by establishing best practices to provide support and guidance. For example, the U.S. Department of Education recommends that educators not ask students about their immigration status and that they ensure that all students have access to resources about the educational rights of unauthorized youth. Teachers and community members can also play a key role in helping unauthorized students navigate issues such as applying for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program; they can even provide information on citizenship options. DACA creates the opportunity and incentive for recipients to pursue higher education, enter the workforce, and contribute to society at a higher rate than noncitizen immigrants.


The protection of the right to K-12 education for all children established in Plyler v. Doe helps educators create safe environments for immigrant students where they can achieve their full potential. High-quality education is a critical, long-term investment for all children in the United States, and it cannot exist when school attendance is limited by fear. All students are more likely to succeed when their communities come together to protect them. Schools and communities—especially those with high unauthorized immigrant populations—across the United States should follow the examples of Durham, LAUSD, and Prince George’s County and create safe spaces for their students. This is necessary not only to support the protections of Plyler v. Doe but also to ensure the legal rights of immigrant students in the United States. Students should not have to worry about ICE personnel apprehending them or their family members at or near school. Children have the right to feel safe leaving their homes to receive an education.

Kayla Lee is a former intern with the Immigration team at the Center for American Progress.

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