A recent paper from researchers at the Civil Rights Project at UCLA found that immigrant students are terrified they could be picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials — or their family members, friends or others they know — and this fear impacts their ability to learn and the ability of their teachers to teach.
And it isn’t just immigrant, first- or second-generation students who are affected.
“Any time there is a raid or a threat of deportation or people just worried about the issue, it doesn’t just affect that family, it affects the teacher and the classmates and the administrators,” said Julie Sugarman, senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy. “Any time there’s something that happens in a community, it affects everybody.”
There’s an increased rate of absenteeism, which affects not only the students who are absent, but the entire classroom. Students and staff are anxious and emotional and behavioral issues increase as students grapple with how to deal with these things. And while Sugarman said she believes districts and institutions “are really doing their best,” whether finding additional resources, offering additional services or simply increasing diversity training to make sure staff are aware of the issues, for many this is still largely unchartered territory.
The study — and much of the work around the impact of immigration policy on schools — focused primarily on the K-12 environment, but those issues do not leave students when they graduate from high school. For one thing, a number of the students whose families immigrated from Central America never make it to college.
A recent Education Trust report found that overall, degree attainment gaps between Latino students and their white counterparts have increased since 2000, with students from Mexican families particularly vulnerable. J. Oliver Schak, one of the report's co-authors and senior policy and research associate for higher education at Ed Trust, pointed out it’s much more difficult for Mexican students to obtain U.S. citizenship and thus a pathway to federal financial aid and other resources.
But for many Latino students who do make it to campus, there are still concerns about what could happen and discussions about sanctuary on campus have become increasingly political. Trinity Washington University President Patricia McGuire has been particularly outspoken about the issue of immigration and its impact on students on campus, as well as the fate of students who are here under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which also hangs in flux. A 2017 study from the Migration Policy Institute found one-fourth of DACA-eligible population is enrolled in higher education.
“I have promised them that we’ll do everything we can to make sure nothing bad happens,” McGuire said in November 2016, shortly after President Donald Trump's election. “The most important thing is to take care of the individual. What I’m sad about is there won’t be any progress on [policies like DACA]. We'll probably be frozen in place.”
Getting to campus is only half the battle
Luis Duarte, associate director of the Latin American Recruitment and Educational Services Program at the University of Illinois, said undocumented students have more barriers and more challenges to get to and through college. But, he added, and “yet we have noticed that when you are able to provide a safe space, provide support, they’ll graduate and they’ll graduate at even higher numbers.”
Duarte said though students who attended at least three years of high school in Illinois are eligible for in-state tuition, he wishes the state and the his university “could do a lot more statewide and institution wide” to support the success of immigrant students. Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner has been hesitant to sign a safe zones bill that would declare college campuses off-limits to immigrations officials and provide a little bit of mental relief to students on campus.
“We have elections coming up in November and we’re kind of looking forward to see which [candidates are] going to support our population as well as undocumented students,” he said.
Gerardo Ochoa, Linfield College's assistant dean for diversity and community partnerships, said private colleges have a lot more flexibility to help these students financially, but added there is still work to be done to create a welcoming and civil environment once they arrive on campus. For example, Linfield is creating a legal fund for students who need support or help with costs like filing fees, he said.
“A lot of it comes down to how do students feel when they’re on campus; do they have allies?” said Ochoa. “Sometimes it’s not even their peers, it’s their families." They may be citizens, but dealing with mixed families and the stresses that come with worrying about others they care about, he said.
Linfield created groups for students and faculty members to promote the idea of "allyship" for undocumented students and provide training for each department about how immigration policy is impacting student life on campus, Ochoa said. A lot of the issues are not happening on campus, but he said officials recognize these things impact student learning directly.
“Higher education is changing. The demographics are there, and it’s a worthwhile endeavor that colleges are going to have to change the way they do things,” he said.
Higher education leaders, too, are trying to figure out how to grapple with these issues in a way that makes students feel welcome, safe and supported on campus without calling too much attention to them.
Most students are citizens — but that doesn’t mean there isn’t trauma
Debbie Cottrell, vice president for academic affairs at Texas Lutheran University, said it is becoming increasingly clear to her and other administrators on campus that the university, which is in South Texas, not address these issues head-on. But figuring out the right approach is the challenging part.
“DACA students often don’t want a whole lot of attention drawn to them, but they need help, they need support," she said. "So trying to figure out how to, with their advisers, get them help but at the same time not doing too much and making them feel uncomfortable" is the challenge.
The recent separations of immigrant parents and their children at the U.S.-Mexico border has been a struggle. "How do you have that conversation, and how do you address the humanity aspect of this?” said Cottrell, who added individuals on her campus have not had much direct conversation about how to tackle these questions. But, she said, “I think that’s something we need to start looking at in the future.”
Most Texas Lutheran learners are U.S. citizens, Cottrell said. But the institution serves a 35% Latinx population and, consistent with the UCLA center study findings, she said students “feel discomfort [and] concern when they see certain attitudes being expressed” about people who look like them or share similar backgrounds.
Through the institution’s Center for Teaching and Learning, Cottrell said there has been a push to focus on social justice issues to help faculty members understand the wide array of issues and how students might react to them in the classroom and to identify, “regardless of what their own feelings are, how they’re able to facilitate growth in the classroom.”
At this point, though, participation is voluntary, and Cottrell said there is a growing realization that the university may have "to look at it as more of a [mandatory] faculty development piece. ... I think we want them to be well-trained in something that is as important as these kinds of topics are.”
“These are not remote issues for us — [they are] down the street,” she said.