19 February 1999
Why Educate the Children of Illegal Immigrants?
Immigration laws have been a subject of debate throughout American history, especially in states such as California and Texas, where immigrant populations are high. Recently, some citizens have been questioning whether we should continue to educate the children of illegal immigrants. While this issue is steeped in emotional controversy, we must not allow divisive "us against them" rhetoric to cloud our thinking. Yes, educating undocumented immigrants costs us, but not educating them would cost us much more.
Those who propose barring the children of illegal immigrants from our schools have understandable worries. They worry that their state taxes will rise as undocumented children crowd their school systems. They worry about the crowding itself, given the loss of quality education that comes with large class sizes. They worry that school resources will be deflected from their children because of the linguistic and social problems that many of the newcomers face. And finally, they worry that even more illegal immigrants will cross our borders because of the lure of free education.
This last worry is probably unfounded. It is unlikely that many parents are crossing the borders solely to educate their children. More likely, they are in desperate need of work, economic opportunity, and possibly political asylum. As Charles Wheeler of the National Immigration Law Center asserts, "There is no evidence that access to federal programs acts as a magnet to foreigners or that further restrictions would discourage illegal immigrants" (qtd. in "Exploiting").
The other concerns are more legitimate, but they can be addressed by less drastic measures than barring children from schools. Currently the responsibility of educating about 75% of undocumented children is borne by just a few states—California, New York, Texas, and Florida (Edmondson 1). One way to help these and other states is to have the federal government pick up the cost of educating undocumented children, with enough funds to alleviate the overcrowded classrooms that cause parents such concern. Such cost shifting could have a significant benefit, for if the federal government had to pay, it might work harder to stem the tide of illegal immigrants.
So far, attempts to bar undocumented children from public schools have failed. In the 1982 case of Plyler v. Doe, the Supreme Court ruled on the issue. In a 5-4 decision, it overturned a Texas law that allowed schools to deny education to illegal immigrants. Martha McCarthy reports that Texas had justified its law as a means of "preserving financial resources, protecting the state from an influx of illegal immigrants, and maintaining high quality education for resident children" (128). The Court considered these issues but concluded that in the long run the costs of educating immigrant children would pale in comparison to the costs—both to the children and to society—of not educating them.
It isn't hard to figure out what the costs of not educating these children would be. The costs to innocent children are obvious: loss of the opportunity to learn English, to understand American culture and history, to socialize with other children in a structured environment, and to grow up to be successful, responsible adults.
The costs to society as a whole are fairly obvious as well. That is why we work so hard to promote literacy and prevent students from dropping out of school. An uneducated populace is dangerous to the fabric of society, contributing to social problems such as vandalism and crime, an underground economy, gang warfare, teenage pregnancy, substance abuse, and infectious and transmissible diseases. The health issue alone makes it worth our while to educate the children of undocumented immigrants, for when children are in school, we can make sure they are inoculated properly, and we can teach them the facts about health and disease.
Do we really want thousands of uneducated children growing up on the streets, where we have little control over them? Surely not. The lure of the streets is powerful enough already. Only by inviting all children into safe and nurturing and intellectually engaging schools can we combat that power. Our efforts will be well worth the cost.
Edmondson, Brad. "Life without Illegal Immigrants." American Demographics, vol. 1, 1996.
"Exploiting Fears." Admissions Decisions: Should Immigration Be Restricted?, Public Agenda, 7 Oct. 1996, www.vote-smart.org/issues/Immigration/chap2/imm2itx.html. Accessed 10 Feb. 1999.
McCarthy, Martha M. "Immigrants in Public Schools: Legal Issues." Educational Horizons, vol. 71, 1993, pp. 128-30.
Knutson, Andrew. "Sample Essay: Arguing a Point." The Official Web Site for Diana Hacker, 19 Feb. 1999, www.bedfordstmartins.com/hacker/arguing.htm. Accessed 2 Mar. 2009.