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Back to School : Immigration and Education

camp counselorsAs I write this article, we’re now into September, the end of summer is here, and my kids are heading back to school. One of my sisters-in-law is an elementary school teacher in the area, and invariably when we gather at family events, she tells me that her best and hardest working students are those from other countries. She also tells me that those kids’ parents support their kids and their education in ways she does not see with their U.S. citizen counterparts.  As she states it, it just seems to mean more to them.

This always makes me think about immigration and education in America. There are so many ways to approach this. From elementary school through college and beyond, foreign students and their parents face a myriad of challenges, including simply attaining their educational goals, including accessing college.

All children, regardless of their immigration status, have a constitutional right to attend our nation’s public schools from kindergarten through high school.[1] While a quality education can provide low-income Americans and immigrants with a path out of poverty, the challenges confronted by students who are not proficient in the English language create additional hurdles for immigrant students.  Yet, as my sister-in-law always notes, they and their families work very hard to succeed.  And this success can be measured.

During the Trump presidency, we’re becoming numb to the inflammatory rhetoric about immigrants, and it seems that the President’s focus for the 2020 elections will not be on traditional kitchen table issues, but rather divisive and misleading statements about America’s borders, asylum seekers, and the like. The undertone of all this is that some how immigrants pose both a physical and economic threat to native-born Americans.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Here are some facts:

  • According to the Brookings Institution, children of immigrants tend to attain educational outcomes that are like those of native-born Americans, but with higher rates of college and postgraduate attainment (i.e., they are more likely to be highly educated).
  • According to the Cato Institute, 43% of all recently-arrived immigrants are college graduates, compared to 29% of native-born Americans.          

Fast-forward to what happens after these kids get out of college:

  • A June, 2011 report from Partnership for a New American Economy states that 40% of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants and their children, employing over 10 million people worldwide.

According to Inc., immigrants launch 20% of U.S. businesses despite being only 13% of the population.

There’s no shortage of data on the positive impact of immigration on our economy. And an argument can be made that it all starts with a quality education.  While the federal government imposes significant restrictions on foreign students who wish to come to the United States to study (e.g., they most show that they have sufficient funds to cover all their expenses during their anticipated course of study), many states, including New York, are now becoming more progressive in enacting tuition equity laws for those foreign nationals already present in the United States.

Generally, these laws permit certain students who have attended and graduated from secondary schools in their state to pay the same tuition as their “in-state” classmates at their state’s public institutions of higher education, regardless of their immigration status.  Some states, New York again also included, offer financial assistance to students who meet certain criteria, regardless of their immigration status.

These laws are being enacted to help young people (like Dreamers), who were brought to the United States by their parents, through no fault of their own, who have worked hard in school with the hope of going to college and often discover that they face obstacles preventing them from doing so, again not of their own making.

And, playing it forward from what my sister-in-law tells me, the students (and their parents) who benefit from these policies tend to be very goal-oriented, with very high academic standing.  Why in the world would we want to hinder their academic success when the resulting benefits of their education are so positive for America?  Among other things, immigration makes America great … and always has.

[1]Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202 (1982).

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