President-elect Donald Trump says his immigration policy is about building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico (that Mexico will supposedly pay for) and deporting immigrants with criminal records.
He has also threatened to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, by which President Obama protected the rights of the young adults—those known as Dreamers—who came to the United States as young children but who, as non-citizens, have struggled to qualify for in-state tuition and scholarships at their state colleges and universities and even to get work permits. These are young people who have very likely known only the United States as home and who speak English at school and in the workplace. The DACA program— established by executive order—could be immediately overturned by our new president.
It is important to get one thing really clear about immigration: any changes in DACA or any mass expulsion of immigrant families will have the most tragic consequences for two groups: children and young adults. There are two groups of vulnerable young people—adolescents and young adults who were brought here by their undocumented parents and who remain undocumented all these years later—and the children who were born here as U.S. citizens but who are the dependent children of undocumented parents who may be expelled. Both groups of young people face a frightening future under President-elect Trump’s proposed immigration policies. Enormous linguistic, educational, cultural and personal challenges loom.
Under President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), young people living in the shadows were finally in a position to qualify for a Social Security Card and access to higher education. The Los Angeles Times reported on Sunday: “An estimated 742,000 so-called Dreamers—those given protection under the program—live in the U.S. Roughly one out of three lives in California.” These young people are suddenly vulnerable now that Donald Trump has been elected: “When immigrants submitted to background checks under DACA, the paperwork assured them their information would not be used to deport them later. But the assurances are not legally binding—something that has provided fear in immigrant communities.”
The newspaper quotes Harvard sociologist Roberto Gonzales, describing the plight of these young people who, except for DACA, have found protection uneven from state to state in a nation that has lacked comprehensive immigration reform: “In the absence of federal immigration reform, states, counties and municipalities have been left to craft local solutions to a broken immigration system… As a result, now, more so than ever before, where one lives is consequential to one’s experience of integration or exclusion. If DACA goes, hundreds of thousands of families will be impacted, to be sure. But some will experience the pain and suffering more acutely…. (W)hile mayors in cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle have pledged to remain sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants, smaller rural areas will not be able to shield young people.”
Young adult Dreamers face one set of challenges. What about younger children?
On Sunday, National Public Radio‘s Claudio Sanchez reported on his conversation with the co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, Patricia Gandara, who has been collaborating with academic colleagues in Mexico to address the needs of the children of parents—undocumented in the U.S.—who have returned to Mexico. Nearly 500,000 of these children—educated in U.S. public schools—have returned from the U.S. with their families to Mexico over the past eight years. Gandara explains why this issue has become urgent for both countries: “First of all, people on both sides of the border don’t realize this many children have returned to Mexico from the U.S. Massive deportations and the economic downturn from 2007 to 2009 were big contributors to this. Jobs just dried up, so families went back with their kids. About 450,000 have enrolled in schools in Mexico that we know of. We don’t know how many are not enrolled because not all have access to schools.”
Sanchez explains that because 9 out of 10 of these children were born in the United States and are U.S. citizens, these students will in all likelihood travel back and forth between both countries. For the sake of the children and for both societies, “schools on both sides of the border need to work together to make sure the children can get a quality education.”
But he adds, there are enormous challenges. When students raised in the U.S. return to Mexico, they very likely do not read or write Spanish. Many very young children coming from U.S. schools may not even have mastered basic literacy skills in English: “The fact that most of these students can’t read or write in Spanish is just one hurdle. Their parents don’t know how to navigate Mexico’s education system. Mexican schools often don’t accept transcripts from U.S. schools. They don’t evaluate U.S.-born children in English, their primary language.”
Gandara describes acquisition of Spanish as the primary barrier for English-speaking children returning to Mexico: “In Mexican schools, the goal is to transition children as quickly as possible to Spanish fluency—because it’s the only language that matters. We’ve tried to estimate the percentage of classroom teachers in Mexico who speak English at a level that they can communicate with these (U.S.-born) kids, and found that fewer than 5 percent in public schools across (Mexico) can communicate with these children.”
Gandara and her academic colleagues in Mexico have been working to smooth the academic adjustment for children and families returning from the U.S. to Mexico. Gandara explains: “Number One: Schools need to welcome parents and help them understand how the (Mexican) system works and how they can support their children. Many of these families arrive with tremendous needs that hinder parents’ ability to support their children. Second, schools need to fully assess what children know in their primary language. Too often, a child’s knowledge is discarded because it is in another language. Educators in both Mexico and the U.S. have to understand that young people who’ve been educated in both countries can be our future. Whether your primary language is English or Spanish or you live in Mexico or the U.S., we can’t afford to lose these children. It’s a social and economic loss.”