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Education is a complicated, fragile process, affected by many factors outside of school from nutrition to health to family. Seemingly unrelated factors can impede a child’s ability to learn. Even air pollution and rising temperatures affect learning, scientists are documenting. Now I’ve come across a new study about how increased immigration enforcement has harmed Latino math performance in many U.S. cities, suggesting that arrests and deportations are disrupting the routines of many more children than just the immediate families of undocumented residents.

Years before President Donald Trump took office, the Obama Administration stepped up deportations of undocumented residents in the United States, especially those with criminal records. A team of education researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara, looked at places where hundreds of thousands of people had been deported between 2009 and 2016 to see what happened to the academic achievement of students who attended a school nearby. The researchers found that Latino-white gaps in chronic absenteeism and in math test scores widened in nearly 2,000 school districts located within 25 miles of a deportation. That affected some 2.75 million Latino students who attended school near 262 deportation sites around the country. 

Latino students tend to have significantly lower math scores on annual state tests and higher rates of chronic absenteeism (missing more than 15 school days a year) than white students across the country. But the researchers noticed that when there were more deportations in a community in a given year, the wider the math and absenteeism gaps grew for Latino students. As deportations declined, so did the gaps. The achievement gaps between black and white students, by contrast, didn’t move in tandem with deportations.

Related: The learning effect of air quality in classrooms

Proximity to a deportation mattered. Schools beyond this 25-mile radius of a deportation site didn’t see the Latino-white gaps in achievement and absenteeism grow along with deportation rates. 

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The study, “Deportations Near the Schoolyard: Examining Immigration Enforcement and Racial/Ethnic Gaps in Educational Outcomes,” was published in a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association, AERA Open, in January 2020. 

Not all academic indicators sank for Latino students in communities with an increase in deportations. Reading appeared unaffected; the researchers didn’t detect a worsening of the Latino-white achievement gap on reading tests. The researchers also checked bullying rates at schools, expecting that they might also increase among Latino children when deportations rose, but that wasn’t the case either.

J. Jacob Kirksey, one of the quantitative researchers on the study who is heading to Texas Tech University in Lubbock as an assistant professor this fall, explained in a telephone interview that absenteeism is the key to understanding the student outcomes. He believes that deportations are disruptive to the broader community and, in turn, disrupt students’ school-going habits. As absenteeism rises, it particularly affects math because it’s a sequential subject. Students can quickly fall behind after a few missed classes. 

There are other theories too. One is that schools, especially those with higher proportions of white students, become less welcoming or more hostile to Latino students when deportations occur. It could also be that students fear coming to school when immigration enforcement increases. During the Trump Administration, more recent news reports of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers arresting parents and students on school grounds have certainly had that effect. For example, 2,000 students in Las Cruces, New Mexico, stopped going to school in the days following raids by ICE agents in 2017.

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Unfortunately, it’s difficult to express in plain language just how big the hit to Latino achievement was during the Obama-era deportations. Kirksey explained that white scores increased slightly and Latino scores decreased slightly in grades three through eight. Added together, the statistical gap between the two demographic groups widened. The study took advantage of test score data from the Stanford Education Data Archive, which maps every state’s own assessment onto a single national yardstick. The researchers tracked achievement gaps, rather than actual test scores, and converted them into statistical units instead of using test score points. For the wonks reading this, the Latino-white math gap increased by 0.08 standard deviations for every 850 deportations. So, in a city like New York, where there were as many as 4,000 deportations a year, the consequences for Latino math scores add up. In Indianapolis, where there were fewer than 10 deportations a year, not so much. 

Related: Early evidence of a ‘Trump effect’ on bullying in schools

One of the big surprises was how the educational ripple effects were seen among Latino children across the nation, from New York City to Omaha to Portland, Oregon. (See Figure 1 from the study, reproduced below.) “We think of immigration policy as affecting the southern border and maybe major metropolises but, in fact, it spans the entire country to regions you wouldn’t have thought about,” said Kirksey.

Kirksey’s data did not extend through the Trump era, when immigration enforcement, by some measures, has increased. But Kirksey suspects that many Latino students are again suffering at school.  “This study is a call for researchers and educators to look further at what they’re seeing in their schools and the ways it is manifesting,” Kirksey said. “Ultimately we want to steer resources to the students who need them.” 

This story about the academic achievement of Latino students was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Jill Barshay is a staff writer and editor who writes the weekly “Proof Points” column about education research and data. She taught algebra to ninth graders for the 2013-14 school year. In school,...

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