In March 2017, Romulo Avelica Gonzalez was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) outside of Academia Avance—an UnidosUS Affiliate in Los Angeles, and his daughters’ school.
Romulo’s 13-year-old daughter Fatima filmed her father being picked up by ICE outside of the school from the backseat of their family car. Romulo isn’t a threat to public safety, and has lived in the United States for many years raising his daughters, who are U.S. citizens.
“It was the hardest thing to watch,” Fatima recounted at an UnidosUS Press Conference last year. “But I still went to school, because my father’s shown me the importance of education.”
Romulo was released to his family after six months in detention. His children—who had to spend six months apart from their father—were lucky in comparison to other families who have been separated as a result of the Trump administration’s draconian immigration policies.
The Threat of Deportation Affects Education: The impact on a child’s education development of events like these are manifold. U.S.-citizen children of undocumented parents, for example, are more likely to lack access to educational opportunities during the most critical years of their mental development than children of citizens or legal permanent residents.
Students are still suffering from toxic stress under the current climate around immigration—and the education of all children in American schools continues to be affected.
For Latino children with an undocumented family member, the threat of deportation is a major contributing factor in this educational disparity. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, it’s also a major stressor—putting children of detained or deported parents at higher risk of depression and anxiety, emotional problems, negative self-esteem, attention disorders, speech delay, and low school performance.
In addition, several studies have found that children of undocumented parents—the majority of whom are Latino—are less likely than their peers to be enrolled in preschool programs or extracurricular activities that promote positive development out of a fear that a family member might be reported to immigration enforcement.
School Attendance and The Impact Of Toxic Stress: One of the most widespread and devastating effects of heightened immigration enforcement is the dramatic drop in school attendance that comes with it. Students worried about their parents being deported often miss school out of fear that they’ll come home to find a family member gone. And students in danger of being deported may be kept home by their parents.
Either way, students’ poor attendance and anxiety can have a negative toll on their academic performance, especially if they’re chronically absent, i.e., miss 10% or more days of school.
The current environment around immigration is exposing many U.S.-citizen children to what medical professionals refer to as “toxic stress.” Generally speaking, toxic stress differs from what we consider a normal stress response, in that the former involves a lack of caregiver support, reassurance, or emotional attachment. Just as a child living in extreme poverty, an insecure neighborhood, or with a physically or emotionally abusive parent might experience periods of toxic stress, researchers are finding that children living in constant fear of a parent being detained or deported by federal immigration authorities can also experience it.
The toxic stress that immigrant students and U.S.-citizen children of immigrants are experiencing under the Trump administration’s immigration policies can affect them for years. A study by Harvard indicated that adults who experienced toxic stress as children had higher instances of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, demonstrating that these policies have consequences that can stretch on for years.
Extracurricular Activities: The Hidden Casualty of Immigration Enforcement: A growing number of students from immigrant households are also foregoing extracurricular and enrichment opportunities, according to a study by UCLA. In this climate of intense fear, it’s easy to understand why children would opt to stay home and keep a low profile—or prepare for the worst. One fourth-grade teacher surveyed recalled that a student had told her that “her mom is teaching her how to make food and feed her baby sister in case her mom is taken away.”
Research also suggests that participation in extracurricular activities is as essential to children’s social, emotional, and cognitive development as attending and performing well in school. In fact, it’s linked to higher grades, greater self-confidence, and better relationships.
The benefits of after-school enrichment activities are particularly profound for Latino youth, who “are at increased risk for school failure and are less likely to have access to social capital in the home and community settings.”
Heightened fears around immigration policies are also disrupting school ecosystems around the country. Indeed, teachers and other school staff have expressed concern about children’s well-being because of the indiscriminate crackdown by the Trump administration.
In the UCLA study, two-thirds of educators said that all of their students, even those who aren’t targets and whose families aren’t at risk of deportation, were indirectly affected by the push. Overall learning environment was affected too, in part because of concerns for those classmates and families who could be potential targets for immigration enforcement.
But educators are fighting back. Ricardo Mireles, Executive Director at Academia Avance teamed up with Marcos Aguilar, Executive Director of Semillas, another UnidosUS Affiliate to create the CASAS (California Schools Are Sanctuaries) coalition, which aims to ensure that all children in California can be free to learn without fear. It’s because of this coalition, working with UnidosUS, that the story of the Avelica family was able to be elevated so quickly.
But even with groups like CASAS, students are still suffering from toxic stress under the current climate around immigration—and the education of all children in American schools continues to be affected.
Carlos Guevara is a Senior Policy Advisor for www.UnidosUS.org.
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