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Immigrants and education in the US
Kemberly Gil, a DACA recipient, DREAMer and college student rallies for immigrant rights in a 2014 protest in New York. Credit: U. Roberto Romano, courtesy of Rural & Migrant Ministry

Kemberly Gil came to the United States from Colombia when she was 3 years old. She was with her parents, her older brother, and her younger sister. Like most undocumented immigrants in this country, Gil and her family crossed the border legally — on a tourist visa. After six months, however, the visa expired, and they lost their right to stay.

That was in 1999.

The family has lived in New York state since they arrived in the U.S. and, while Gil’s parents were always honest with her about the fact that she was undocumented, it wasn’t until she attended an immigrant’s rights rally when she was in fourth grade that she realized being undocumented was a problem, and one that affected a lot of people. Though she was only a child, she volunteered to speak to the crowd, calling on lawmakers to understand undocumented immigrants are people, too.

“I remember that I cried that day,” Gil said. “But no one heard me. The people there heard me, but the people who make decisions … nothing happened.”

Then, in the summer of 2012 President Barack Obama announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which he created by executive order. Gil and her siblings became eligible for driver’s licenses, work permits and protection from deportation for two-year, renewable terms.

The federal government approved 819,512 DACA requests from the program’s inception through March 31, 2016. An additional 539,000 people have renewed their original two-year reprieves.

But this fall, the presidential election could mean the end of DACA. Donald Trump has not only promised to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, the Republican presidential candidate has said he would also eliminate the program. It is, perhaps, the most prominent immigration policy at stake when Americans go to the polls. And that’s not the only way a Trump administration could affect the lives of one of the fastest-growing populations in U.S. schools. In fact, the contrast between two presidential candidates on immigration policy has quite possibly never been so stark.

Immigrants have grown from just 4.7 percent of the U.S. population in 1970 to an estimated 13.3 percent in 2014, according to Census data, and the number of immigrant students has grown accordingly. Both the actions and the possible inaction of the next president will have far-reaching consequences on these students in U.S. schools.

Related: Teachers union leader says next president must completely reset education policy and oust current education secretary

The next president will have a say in how unaccompanied minors are treated once they get to this country, how the federal government handles deportation or combats civil rights violations against immigrant students, and how much federal funding will be given to support 4.5 million English language learners — a growing portion of the student body that has been served with nearly flat federal funding for years.

Immigrants made up 13.3 percent of the U.S. population in 2014 and only 4.7 percent of the population in 1970.

Since receiving a reprieve under DACA in 2013, Gil has continued advocating for additional immigrant-friendly legislation, but much of her attention has more recently turned to the presidential election and what is at stake.

“I’m always scared because at any moment, DACA can be taken away from us,” Gil said. “My life, my future, the future of my mom is in these people’s hands, and they don’t really care, and they don’t see the lives that they’re affecting.”

The power of the president

One of the pillars of the Trump campaign is his promise to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border to keep immigrants out. When it comes to policy, he has committed to repealing Obama’s executive orders on immigration, including DACA. He also wants to remove federal funding from “sanctuary cities,” some 31 cities across the country that ban city employees and police officers from asking about an individual’s immigration status.

“I’m always scared because at any moment, DACA can be taken away from us. My life, my future, the future of my mom is in these people’s hands, and they don’t really care, and they don’t see the lives that they’re affecting.”

Clinton has said she would introduce comprehensive immigration reform in her first 100 days in office, and, absent any progress in Congress, she would explore additional executive orders that would defer deportation for qualifying residents. She has also said she would defend DACA and push for implementation of an effort by Obama to expand eligibility for the program as well as to protect parents of children who are citizens or who are otherwise here legally.

How aggressive the next president is in enforcing immigration law greatly impacts those who are U.S. citizens but worry about their parents and other relatives. Researchers have explored the trauma students face because of this anxiety. Fred Tsao, senior policy counsel for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights points to the thousands of cases in which parents have been taken into custody by immigration officials while their children were in school, a reality that was increasingly common over the years of the George W. Bush presidency.

In these situations, the children of undocumented immigrants frequently end up staying with a relative, but thousands enter foster care. According to a 2011 study by the Applied Research Center, now Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation, at least 5,100 children were in state custody because their parents were detained or deported.

Tsao says the second Bush administration focused its immigration efforts on raids of work sites that employed large numbers of undocumented immigrants, while the Obama administration has based its enforcement efforts on removing people with criminal convictions from the country.

“The laws that are on the books, the statutes and court cases do set up some basic guidelines and create a policy framework, but as we’ve seen over the last couple decades, there is a lot of flexibility with respect to how the executive branch prioritizes its operations,” Tsao said.

Farther from the spotlight are policy areas that touch the nation’s schools and arguably impact the lives of millions of immigrant youth nearly as much as DACA or deportation enforcement. Schools are required to protect the civil rights of immigrant students, but past presidents have had a mixed record on how zealously their administrations enforced it. Under the Obama administration, the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights has been fairly aggressive in its pursuit of cases against schools accused of failing to properly serve English language learners or provide open channels of communication with their parents. Though a school’s failure in this area is considered discrimination based on national origin, prior administrations did less in the way of enforcement.

Related: Schools are under federal pressure to translate for immigrant parents

Edward Tabet-Cubero, executive director of the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, expects a Clinton administration would keep up the pressure on schools to meet their obligations under civil rights laws, while Trump would scale back the office’s activity and hurt students in doing so.

819,512 DACA requests approved between August 2012 and March 2016.

“I think the federal government plays an integral role in monitoring compliance, especially around civil rights issues for this particular group of students,” Tabet-Cubero said. “[States] and [schools] have proven time and again that they need that compliance support.”

Under Obama, federal support for students learning English and those who teach them has been nearly flat, a trend Tabet-Cubero finds particularly troubling. The next president will have the chance to maintain a status quo created by the second Bush administration or make a change — for better or worse.

A longtime advocate for bilingual education and a veteran of the D.C. policy world, James Lyons has watched the rise and fall in funding over the last 40 years and the development of this new status quo. Lyons was working at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, specializing in education issues, in the late 1970s, when the Carter administration created the Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Languages Affairs.

From outside the government, Lyons watched the George W. Bush administration rebrand that office as the Office of English Language Acquisition and saw the No Child Left Behind law used to spearhead a significant shift in the way schools approach the language education of immigrant students. The new reality became prioritizing English language acquisition — as fast as possible and under the threat of federal sanctions for failure — over support for students’ native languages.

Lyons, who is now an attorney and a policy consultant for Dual Language Education of New Mexico, a national leader on language education, said the damage can also be traced back to NCLB’s elimination of the Bilingual Education Act. Its replacement provided more money for English language learners nationwide, but spread that money more thinly, considerably reducing the per-student funding of programs receiving the federal dollars. It also limited the money available for teacher training, research, and support services.

Related: Have Obama’s education policies weakened the Democratic Party?

Lyons has advocated for better teacher education programs and professional development initiatives to respond to the changing face of today’s student population.

“As a former school district administrator, I appreciate the opportunity for local control, but I think the federal government plays an integral role in monitoring compliance, especially around civil rights issues for this particular group of students.”

“Not only do our teachers not look like the students they educate, in terms of race and ethnicity, they in no way sound like the children that they are expected to instruct,” Lyons said. “There is a total disconnect in the area of language and cultural understanding.”

Although Lyons is “not real optimistic” about the prospects for dual-language education in a Clinton White House, he is “pessimistic” about what Trump might do in office.

Trump versus Clinton

As New York’s senator in 2007, Clinton helped quash a state initiative that would have given undocumented immigrants access to driver’s licenses. Gil, who is working on a driver’s license campaign in New York to undo the damage inflicted, in part, by Clinton, is frustrated with the options in this election — even though candidate Clinton has since reversed her stance and now supports licenses for undocumented immigrants.

“I don’t see anything happening that would be good for immigrants under [Trump],” Gil said. “Clinton is also very scary because she … just goes where the wind blows.”

Still, there are those who have faith in the Democratic nominee, especially when juxtaposed against Trump and his anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Kathy Escamilla, a full professor in the educational equity and cultural diversity division at the University of Colorado at Boulder, says she’s for Hillary Clinton. She sees the Obama administration’s education policies as a continuation of those outlined by George W. Bush and criticizes former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for his lack of support for bilingual education and dual language programs, in particular.

“I think Donald Trump would be an unmitigated disaster for this country in more ways than just education,” Escamilla said. “I hope and trust [Clinton] would listen to constituents about misguided policies from the Obama administration and correct what was wrong the last 16 years.”

Related: Trump pledges to ‘rescue kids from failing schools’ in final night of Republican convention

As the clock ticks closer to Election Day, Gil is starting her junior year at the State University of New York at Brockport. Her deportation relief under DACA empowered her to apply to the school, where she was eligible for in-state tuition — but no federal loans — and work while she pursued her degree.

The 20-year-old political science major works 25 to 35 hours per week in addition to going to school full time. Somehow, Gil has been able to make it work, juggling her studies with jobs at a pizzeria, the New York State Migrant Education program, and SUNY Brockport’s Department of Community Development.

Gil is protected from deportation until August 2017, when her DACA approval expires. Depending on the next president, she will either graduate and seek work legally or be forced back into the shadows.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about immigration.

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