All Children Deserve an Education, No Matter Their Immigration Status

by Rhonda M. Carter

The Trump administration has already fostered an anti-immigrant climate catastrophic for many immigrant children and their families. Many young immigrants are seeing the promise of an education slip out of their grasp. Moves from abruptly ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and revoking Temporary Protected Status from tens of thousands of established U.S. residents to effectively banning travel to the U.S. for those from selected majority Muslim countries are working together to burden students. Immigrant students are receiving a resounding message that their desire to learn is not meaningful and that they, along with their families and communities, are unwelcome and at risk of separation at any time from those they love most and who most love them.

In February 2018, a survey of more than 5,000 teachers and administrators at 730 schools across the country found an overwhelming majority of respondents reported significant increases in anxiety, depression, stress, and absenteeism and decreases in academic performance because of the current political climate and policy shifts around immigration enforcement.

In addition to making educational success more difficult for these children, the effects of this kind of toxic stress are linked to negative health impacts that can last a lifetime, as we described in our one of our previous pieces focused on community health and wellness. The impacts of these policies are compounding and pervasive, reaching well beyond the 5 million children across the country who could be directly traumatized by their own removal or that of a parent.

Of the 53,380 students who attend public schools here in Seattle, almost a quarter are from non-English speaking backgrounds, and over one-third qualify for the free and reduced price lunch program for students from low-income families. The City of Seattle and Seattle Public Schools in recent years have taken admirable strides to protect our students and their families.

As represenatives of a sanctuary city and sanctuary district, elected leaders and civil servants have passed resolutions, issued executive orders, and adopted immigrant-friendly practices. They have also partnered with community organizations to establish programs and deliver services to this vulnerable population.

Even so, we cannot be lulled into believing we are doing enough. Now is the time to double-down on institutionalizing and fully funding what we know to be effective ways to support and protect these students and to mitigate as best we can the long-term harm of living perilously close to deportation.

We call on the City to continue to support and further protect students in our jurisdiction facing deportation or family separation.

Last year, former Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, signed an executive order establishing Seattle’s Welcoming City initiative, which included an allocation of $250,000 to develop programming to support and protect undocumented students and their families. Since then, partner organizations have sponsored numerous “Know Your Rights” community education forums, and non-profit legal partners have been providing technical and legal support to those students who need it.

Funding for these crucial programs, such as the Family Unity Project, an initiative at the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project that provides immigration-related legal services to Seattle Public Schools students and their families, must continue into the future. The city should continue to work with local partners to ensure that these efforts are targeted and sustainable.

In addition, the City could extend additional protections to its undocumented residents by making immigration status a protected class and enforcing city-level prohibitions on housing and workplace discrimination or retaliation based on immigration status. We acknowledge that as a sanctuary city, city and school district employees, including representatives of the Office of Civil Rights, which is responsible for investigating discrimination claims, are prohibited from asking about immigration status. However, the city must still find other ways to ensure that private education service providers, employers, and landlords in Seattle are not able to intimidate, exploit, or otherwise discriminate against undocumented people with impunity. Stability for undocumented families is foundational to their children being able to realize their limitless potential and exercise fully their right to an equal education.

We call on the district to ensure that our schools are invested in providing comprehensive wraparound supports for our most vulnerable students.

In partnership with Seattle Public Schools, the City of Seattle funds, through the Families, Education, and Promise Program levy, family and community-based support programs to monitor and address the academic, emotional, and social health needs of affected students and to identify needed interventions in order to ensure students’ success. Given the stress and fear to which immigrant children are subject, it is especially important that these types of resources remain priorities, even in an environment where difficult budget choices must be made.

A far higher price to pay would be the dampened aspirations and wasted potential of immigrant children whose recent absences and failing test scores go unexplained and unexplored. We strongly support any and all efforts to ensure that as many students as possible have easy access to a dedicated and knowledgeable professional who can work closely with them and their families to share culturally appropriate and relevant information and connect them to vital services, such as translation or legal assistance.

Seattle has been a model city in many regards when it comes to protecting our children’s rights to an equal education no matter their immigration status. But we cannot rest. More is needed, and it is more important than ever to have the strongest possible local protections and supports in place to afford all of our children the opportunity to thrive academically, emotionally, and socially. Doing so will allow Seattle as a city and a community to hold up our end of the bargain on the promise of equal education for all.


Rhonda M. Carter is the Chair of the Education and Economic Opportunity Committee representing the Seattle Women’s Commission.

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