The School-to-Deportation Pipeline?

Mar 20, 2015
11:05 AM

Earlier this month in Virginia, Richmond School Superintendent Dr. Dana T. Bedden issued an apology for a February 2013 incident involving the bag searches of Latino students. The students reported that the school staff threatened deportation. While the apology was long overdue and accepted by the students, it was an admission to guilt of the staff making such threats and having the perceived capacity to carry them out. This incident begs a larger question: Is there a “school-to-deportation” pipeline?



When the average high school student in the United States spends 20% of their week in school (calculations derived from here), schools hold an immense amount of authority over young people’s time. More than one million undocumented youth especially depend on schools for their livelihoods in the U.S. The 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) protects young people from deportation who “are currently in school, have graduated or obtained a certificate of completion from high school, have obtained a General Educational Development (GED) certificate, or are honorably discharged veteran of the Coast Guard or Armed Forces of the United States.” Even to enlist in the military, a person must hold either a high school diploma or equivalent.

Here lies the conundrum: undocumented students need to remain in school to remain in the U.S. and to contribute as gainfully employed adults, but the schools and their communities are not necessarily invested in keeping them enrolled and getting them to the high school diploma. Of those undocumented students who arrived at age 14 or older, 46% have not completed high school. For those who arrived before age 14, 28% have not completed. Compare these figures to authorized immigrants with a dropout rate of 15% and U.S.-born residents at 8%.

Schools are incentivized to funnel out students or discourage their enrollment into school. Due to the proliferation of high stakes testing and accountability for high school graduation rates, schools face financial sanctions for low testing performance and graduation rates. Working with an undocumented student to a high school diploma and an acceptable score on tests requires resources that schools may not have or access. High school attendance and graduation occur in the contexts of undocumented young people’s lives which are fraught with multiple difficulties. Undocumented students may need additional school support for ESL, trauma, legal entanglements and poverty that impede their progress towards the diploma and add to the school’s costs.

In the Miami-Dade school district, the costs to educate a foreign-born student is an additional $2,000 more than educating a native-born student, on top of the average cost per pupil at $9,059. The cost per a pupil at Miami-Dade was publicly praised as one of the lowest in the nation and Superintendent Alberto Calvahlo bragged as an early accomplishment in his tenure. What interest does the school administration have to enroll or keep unauthorized students if undocumented students pose additional risk for a higher drop-out rate, incur additional costs to the district and hurt their public image?

What personal interest does the undocumented student have to stay in school? We as adults agree that education pays off in the long-term for youth and know the educational eligibility requirements under DACA, but the undocumented young person may only feel the “now” and responds to immediate results. Dr. Adriana Galván gave a TedTalk about how adolescents do not possess fully formed prefrontal cortex in their brain and rely on their emotional parts of their brains to make decisions. The frontal lobe is responsible for assessment of consequences and long-term outcomes.

The routes for immediate and future educational success for undocumented youth are stacked with barriers, and we as adults in control of the education system are not making these routes easier. In the short-term, undocumented youth have immediate financial need to work to support their families, face feelings of unwelcomeness at the school, and are eligible under DACA for three years only. In the longer term, they are ineligible for financial aid to sustain in college and have minimal job prospects after completing their education due to their documentation status.

What happens to the undocumented pupil once the student is “pushed out” of school? The school-to-prison pipeline is a phrase to describe how students —usually of minority backgrounds and with mutliple barriers— are getting pushed out of schools and are at risk for involvement in criminal justice system. In some cases, the school has a student arrested for fighting, truancy, etc., which automatically triggers their involvement in the courts. This may result in a referral to the immigration removal authorities for the undocumented youth. In Phoenix, Arizona, two undocumented students were arrested after a school brawl and, as a result, are now in deportation proceedings. The two students stated that they will not return to the high school, even if they were given a chance to return.

In other cases of the “school-to-prison” pipeline, students are expelled/suspended for misconduct or encouraged to drop out due to underperformance. Out-of-school statuses place youth at a greater risk for gang and criminal involvement on the streets. In fact, 68% of the incarcerated population do not hold high school diplomas or equivalency.

CREDIT: Bob Jagendorf/Flickr

CREDIT: Bob Jagendorf/Flickr

No national statistics or evaluation studies demonstrate the extent that undocumented youth are getting pushed out of schools and are at risk for criminal involvement and deportation. But, many activists, foundations and nonprofits highlighted numerous stories and case studies of the “school-to-deportation” pipeline and the intersection of education and the legal system of undocumented youth. In Los Angeles Unified School District, school administrators under pressure from parents and anti-school-to-prison activists scrapped their “zero tolerance” policy that would suspend or expel a student for minor offenses. The same district recently allow their lawyers to do pro bono work to help undocumented students with deportation proceedings. Both policy changes at the district level will eliminate the “school-to-deportation” pipeline.

In Philadelphia, Juntos, an immigrant youth-lead organization, has funding from Hispanics in Philanthropy to stop the “school-to-deportation” pipeline. In contrast to other immigrant-led organizations that focus on high-achieving undocumented youth, Juntos puts its energies on the school and neighborhood conditions that prevent the majority of undocumented youth’s access to education and pose a risk in involvement in the criminal system. Prysm, a Southeast Asian youth-led immigrant rights organization in Providence, and Raíz, an immigrant youth-led fighting deportation in Orange County, are involved in a social media campaign to stop the school-to-deportation pipeline.

Annie E Casey Foundation, which funds system changing initiatives to benefit children and their families, released a report and guidebook on the intersection of the juvenile justice system and the immigration system. It highlighted narratives of court-involved youth entangled in problems with schools and the immigration system.

The social impact world are forming the first step to bring awareness, illuminate numbers and develop program interventions about the “school-to-deportation” pipeline. They are also limited, because foundations are constantly changing their funding directions. In addition, activists are individuals and nonprofits lack serious financial resources. What we need is a structural change within schools and governments and a change in our cultural narrative to stop the “school-to-deportation” pipeline.

First, we need to stop developing policies and a narrative that focus on college as the primary possible positive outcome for all youth and for undocumented youth.

This one-size-fits-all approach ignores the complicated circumstances and different aspirations of youth—especially for undocumented youth. We need to expand the face for the immigrant rights movements. A large subset of undocumented youth are not finishing high school and, much more, college. The undocumented high school valedictorian and the undocumented lawyer without a license earned a chance to stay here, but the undocumented young person without a college degree who is a plumber deserves a chance, too. A blue-collar role model will encourage undocumented students to stay in school and realize their value for nation’s workforce and economy.

Second, schools and their “accountability” monitors need to reconceptualize school performance and financial metrics in a longitudinal and systems-integrative way.

For example, in the Florida state penal system, the average cost per day to detain/incarcerate a person is $49.24, and the average cost per person per day for detainment and deportation proceedings is $164. That adds up to $213.24 per day per undocumented person.

In the Miami-Dade public school system, the average cost per a day to educate a student is $24.82, and an immigrant child adds $5.48 per a day to that cost. That adds up to $30.30 per a day per an undocumented student, which is $182.94 cheaper than an incarceration-to-deportation model.

This cost savings does not even take into account future earnings or taxes of an undocumented person with a high school degree and without a criminal record. If schools can position their data in terms of alternatives, schools and communities will see how an investment in one system will lead to savings in other systems. Public accountability around this type of number will further deter the schools themselves from referring problem students to the criminal system.

Third, Latino leaders need to engage in a serious discussion and advocacy about the justice system and its intersection with immigration.

Individual activists have an immense amount of power to make an impact, but they are only as powerful as those at the top who will listen and have the resources to implement. They will be able to advocate that juvenile justice involvement is technically a locked record and should not be shared with any other institution such as ICE or an immigration judge. The African-American Leadership are not afraid to discuss the deleterious effect of incarceration on African Americans. Activists working with the Black Leadership pushed the #BlackLivesMater and the Anti-School-To-Prison Movement into the discourse of government and policing policy. Latinos with their exploding numbers have the potential to do the same.

Finally, we need Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) with a pathway to earned legal status.

Undocumented students who are at a huge risk for dropout or pushout of high school will know that they have a chance to stay in this country with or without a college degree. Schools will be encouraged to retain them in school since they will be able to take credit for their increased high school graduation and college application rates. The undocumented parents of the undocumented students will be more involved in their children’s schooling and can publicly pressure schools to serve their students without fear of deportation. Police and the penal systems can not punish unauthorized individuals without due process, because they will have full constitutional rights as citizens and permanent residents.

The “school-to-deportation” pipeline is a serious issue affecting a slice of the Latino community and a slice of American society. It is a symptom of the discordance and failings of the many institutions that touch all of our lives. Reforms in education, justice, immigration, workforce and accountability will not just benefit at-risk undocumented youth but will benefit us all.


You can follow Christina Saenz-Alcántara on Twitter @ctsaenz.