TUNE IN: Taking Action on AI Today and in the Future

RSVP to join our online audience

Center for American Progress

The Trump Administration’s Harsh Immigration Policies Are Harming Schoolchildren

The Trump Administration’s Harsh Immigration Policies Are Harming Schoolchildren

Children, particularly those of school age, have experienced pain and trauma as a result of Trump’s rhetoric and the immigration policies it begets.

Children at an elementary school in California recite the Pledge of Allegiance, September 2010. (Getty/Sandy Huffaker)
Children at an elementary school in California recite the Pledge of Allegiance, September 2010. (Getty/Sandy Huffaker)

In the past two years, the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency has arrested people leaving a church hypothermia shelter, a father who had just dropped his daughter off at school, and a mother of young children who was paying a traffic fine. These stories, as well as those of the more than 2,600 children taken from their parents under the Trump administration’s family separation policy, are heartbreaking.

As these stories circulate, ICE’s increasingly callous actions and the Trump administration’s immigration policies more broadly have come under criticism and scrutiny. In the final weeks of the 2018 election, however, President Donald Trump continued to hammer anti-immigrant rhetoric in speeches across the country and propose fear-based immigration policies. The administration has made multiple attempts—at least one of which has been placed on hold by a federal court—to close the southern border to people from Central American countries seeking asylum in the United States. And just this past weekend, U.S. Border Patrol agents fired tear gas at a group of asylum seekers—including mothers and small children—near the San Ysidro port of entry.

This column outlines research showing that Trump’s rhetoric and policy actions on immigration for the past two years have had measurable negative effects for children and families across the country.

A shift toward more severe immigration enforcement and detention tactics

A new study from Stanford University researchers Thomas S. Dee and Mark Murphy attempts to quantify the effect of “ICE’s reign of terror” on immigrant communities, particularly on school-age children, by looking at what happens when local law enforcement agencies establish partnerships with ICE. Under these partnerships, called 287(g) agreements, ICE delegates certain powers to local law enforcement officials to enforce federal immigration law. One of Trump’s first executive orders called upon ICE to expand the number of 287(g) agreements; to date, the administration has more than doubled the number of agreements in place and has made it clear that it wants to continue to expand 287(g) programs. These agreements are problematic for a number of reasons: They discourage victims of crime from reporting, are costly for and harmful toward local economies, lead to racial profiling and other civil rights violations, and are often operated with a lack of transparency.

Dee and Murphy examined jurisdictions that entered into 287(g) agreements from 2005 through 2010 to determine their effect on public school enrollment. They estimate that these partnerships have displaced an estimated 300,000 or more Hispanic students, as families leave communities, children drop out of school, and families decide not to move into a community. This figure sheds new light on the effects that a no-holds-barred style of immigration enforcement can have on children.

Such policies could potentially affect a significant number of families. If the Trump administration were to further expand its 287(g) policy, it could affect a greater proportion of the 7 percent of U.S. children in K-12 education who have at least one undocumented parent. And given that research has found that the chilling effects of immigration enforcement accrue to more people than just children with undocumented parents, this expansion could end up affecting a much wider population of Latinx students.

While news of the harsh treatment of immigrant families often focuses on undocumented adults, many of those also affected by such actions are children and U.S. citizens. Dee and Murphy’s research provides new information detailing how shifts in immigration enforcement tactics harm families and Latinx communities in locales with 287(g) agreements.

Separation, incarceration, and detention

In addition to seeking an expansion of 287(g) agreements, the Trump administration has made the horrific policy decisions to separate children from their families and house a record number of unaccompanied minors in tent cities. While some progress has been made to reunite families, there are still children who remain separated from their parents—and the administration’s pick to head ICE refused to rule out a return to family separation during his confirmation hearing. Meanwhile, the Trump administration is attempting to replace family separation with indefinite family incarceration, which is also extremely harmful to children’s development.

In addition to separating and incarcerating families, the administration is opening tent facilities such as the one in Tornillo, Texas, in order to accommodate the rising number of unaccompanied minors who are being held in the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement—a subdivision of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)—for longer periods of time. In these facilities, staff are not required to provide any schooling or education to children and are free to ignore other HHS regulations designed to protect children in state custody. In fact, just this week, the HHS Office of Inspector General reported multiple shoddy staffing practices at the Tornillo facility that could place children at risk. If these children eventually make their way to U.S. schools, child development research demonstrates clearly that the trauma they’ve experienced will likely affect their behavior and academic performance.

The detrimental effects of harsh immigration enforcement on children’s well-being

As Dee and Murphy discuss in their paper, displacement can be highly disruptive to a child’s education. Moves precipitated by a stressful or traumatic event are associated with poorer academic performance and increased dropout rates for teens. Previous research cited in the paper also found that the presence of ICE partnerships in communities increases poverty and food insecurity in households with an undocumented member.

Furthermore, a literature review that examined the effects of immigration enforcement on children and families’ well-being found that harsh immigration enforcement actions were associated with detrimental effects on physical and emotional health among families that feared detention or deportation. Similarly, a report by The Civil Rights Project at UCLA found that many students experience emotional and behavioral problems related to fears that ICE will come for them or their families.

This fear can have a direct effect on children’s education. When ICE conducted an enormous raid at a meatpacking plant in eastern Tennessee in April, for example, more than 500 students were absent from school the following day. When a family member is detained or deported, the consequences for children can be severe. These consequences can include material deprivation—the lack of basic, necessary resources such as food and clothing—and psychological trauma, in addition to missing school.

The situation for students who are undocumented is even more precarious. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which currently allows nearly 700,000 young undocumented immigrants who meet program requirements to stay in the United States and obtain work permits, has been in limbo since the Trump administration announced an end to the program a little more than a year ago.

As of now, current and past DACA recipients are able to apply to renew their protections, but many others—including those who were under age 16 when the administration rescinded DACA—remain shut out from the program. What’s more, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has said that whether school leaders want to call ICE to report undocumented students or parents should be a “community decision”—even though such an action would be in contrast to the spirit, if not the letter, of current federal law as decided by Plyler v. Doe.


Through policies such as family separation, the U.S. government is violating children’s human rights, including their right to be with their families and their right to education. The Trump administration’s policy agenda amounts to a rejection of a fundamental American ideal—welcoming immigrants and valuing diversity—in favor of policies that generate fear and xenophobia and call to mind some of the most shameful episodes in the nation’s history. All of this—the fearmongering ICE crackdowns, children terrified to attend school even though they have the right to be there, the walking back of commitments to those protected by DACA, and the holding of children in detention—is immoral.

It is also shortsighted. While President Trump seems to believe that his anti-immigration policies and rhetoric helped him win in 2016, the large Democratic gains in the 2018 midterm elections hint at a backlash. And the lives and well-being of children and families are at stake. The Trump administration’s immigration policies have left in their wake hundreds of thousands of children—most of them U.S. citizens who will remain in America to live, vote, work, and start their own families—with scars that will be difficult to heal. It is time to move beyond hateful rhetoric and xenophobia and support policies that welcome immigrants.

Lisette Partelow is the director of K-12 Strategic Initiatives at the Center for American Progress. Philip E. Wolgin is the managing director of Immigration Policy at the Center.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Lisette Partelow

Senior Fellow

 (Phil Wolgin)

Philip E. Wolgin

Former Managing Director, Immigration Policy