Should the US pay to educate undocumented migrant children?


As the fall term begins, the value of providing public education to thousands of undocumented, unaccompanied young migrants who arrived from Central America in the last year has become a hot topic in the United States immigration debate.

Groups advocating for stricter immigration policies say that bringing these children into the US public school system will place an extreme burden on American taxpayers – more than $750 million for this school year alone, according to the nonprofit Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). Civil rights groups, however, say education is a right that every child deserves, and investing in these children today can only help the nation in the long term.

“Obviously it will cost money,” said Michelle Brané, director of the Migrant Rights and Justice program for the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC), a Washington, DC-based non-profit that supports internally displaced people (IDPs) and immigrants worldwide. But many of these children will likely qualify for asylum, Brané said, “so it absolutely makes sense to educate them.”

“Status should not affect access to education,” she said.

Since October last year, more than 66,000 children have pushed past the US-Mexico border to escape violence and crime at home.

Three-quarters are from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala – countries with some of the worst homicide rates in the world, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Honduras tops the list with about 90 homicides per 100,000 people. In war-torn Nigeria, where Islamic militants are reportedly perpetrating “heinous crimes daily,” the rate is about 20 per 100,000.

“Many of the children being apprehended at the border are fleeing unspeakable violence in their home countries,” California Sen. Diane Feinstein wrote in a June op-ed for the LA Times. “US values and leadership in the world demand that we provide just, humane treatment of these vulnerable children.”

To date, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) – the government division assigned to process unaccompanied minors – has released more than 37,000 children to US sponsors who have passed background checks and been deemed suitable guardians by the HHS. Nearly 90 percent of these sponsors are relatives who have been living in the country, according to HHS data. Once discharged, the children become eligible for enrollment in US public schools under federal law.

“States and local educational agencies are obligated to provide all children – regardless of immigration status – with equal access to public education at the elementary and secondary level,” according to a Department of Education fact sheet addressing the issue. “This includes … unaccompanied children who may be involved in immigration proceedings.”

Still, some public officials have taken steps against the resettling of migrant children in their districts. Over the summer several North Carolina counties filed resolutions urging the government to stop allowing unaccompanied minors into the country, citing risks to their citizens’ health and safety and a strain on resources.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” Frank Williams, county commissioner for Brunswick County, told local station WECT in July. “By the time it becomes a direct issue here, it would probably be too late for us to do anything about it.”

The cost to taxpayers for the 2014-2015 school year could also be staggering when calculations include the need for Limited English Proficient (LEP) classes for migrant children – as high as more than $35,000 per student in New York state, according to a report by FAIR, a Washington, DC-based non-profit advocating for change in US immigration policy.

“Standard cost of LEP is anywhere from 10 [percent] to 200 [percent] of base cost,” Bob Dane, FAIR’s communication director, told online news blog ThinkProgress. “The [unaccompanied minors] are going to be on the higher end of the cost spectrum because of poverty and previous lack of education. In addition, they will need other services such as remedial education and free lunch.”

Advocates for educating migrant children, however, say that even counting for inflation those numbers go far beyond the $12,300 that the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) estimates was the average cost per student in 2012.

In addition, WRC's Brané said, many of the states where these kids are going have faced this issue before and likely won’t need such large amounts of money.

“The infrastructure exists," she said. "It just needs to be reinforced."

Brané added that majority of these children are being released to relatives in the US – people who have jobs and pay taxes. “There’s a huge misconception about that,” she said. “Their parents are already paying taxes. These kids are not just randomly going to school.”

Besides, “some of these students may be staying here in the long run,” said Kim Sweet, executive director of the Advocates for Children of New York, a non-profit that focuses on education access.

Unemployment drops from an average of 14 percent among adults without a high school degree to a little over 4 percent among those with a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to the NCES. The national unemployment rate hovers around 7 percent.

“It benefits our country to have an educated adult force," Sweet said.

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