Potential Effects of New U.S. Immigration Policy on ESL Education

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Reviewed by Mary McLaughlin, Ma-TESOL; M.S. SpEd

There are few people in the United States who work as closely and as regularly with immigrants as the nation’s ESL teachers. Whether interacting directly with children from outside the country or with their parents, ESL educators probably have more first-hand experience with the realities of immigration—both legal and illegal—than do many of the politicians seeking to regulate it.

But politicians make the laws, not teachers, and with the election of President Donald Trump, a sea change in the country’s immigration policy is on the way. The Trump administration’s stated policies will result in a dramatic decrease in immigration to the United States, not to mention a reduction in the current number of immigrants in the U.S. Taken together, this could lead to significant changes in the demand for ESL education in American schools and in the classroom environment for ESL teachers.

The Biggest Immigration Shake-Up in a Generation Is in The Works

The Trump immigration plan consists of 14 specific points (not including the much-discussed border wall with Mexico), but for the purposes of looking at the impacts on ESL education, it makes more sense to distill them down into certain categories.

  • Decrease the number of new immigrants overall by:
    • Eliminating or dramatically curtailing refugee and other legal immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
    • Pausing the issue of green cards for permanent resident aliens during a review of the program, with a likely overall decrease in permitted numbers of new cards being issued.
    • Mandatory e-verify programs to confirm hiring of documented workers.
    • Change visa issue programs to mandate higher pay for foreign workers and require hiring American workers first.
  • Increase enforcement and deportation efforts by:
    • Tripling the number of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) officers working in the U.S.
    • Making the return of all criminal aliens to their home countries mandatory
  • Increasing pressure for local enforcement of immigration laws by defunding sanctuary cities.
  • Removing birthright citizenship.

Reductions in Immigration Probably Mean Reductions in ESL Students

Although the United States has always been a nation of immigrants, this has rarely been so true as it is today. More than 43 million immigrants lived in the United States in 2015, making up 13.5 percent of the total population of the country. The overall number has never been higher, and on a percentage basis, immigrants make up the largest share of our population since 1920. And the immigrant population skews young; a 2009 study by the Population Reference Bureau found that an estimated 25 percent of school age children were from immigrant families and lived in a household where a language other than English was spoken.

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For ESL teachers, this has meant an unprecedented boom in both demand and importance. Beginning with the immigration spike in the 1990s, many school districts found themselves scrambling to cope with the influx of LEP (Limited English Proficiency) students. Federal legislation and court decisions stretching back to the late 1960s mandated accommodations to non-native speakers in the public school system; in 2001, the No Child Left Behind act further codified support, nearly doubling funding for LEP students and ensuring that almost all schools received federal funds for ESL teaching positions.

In 1994, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that 27 percent of schools reported difficulty in hiring ESL teachers. That percentage has gone down, but many districts still have trouble finding qualified ESL staff.

But new immigration policy is likely to ease or possibly even reverse that trend.

Refugee Admissions Have a High Percentage of K-12 Students

Although refugee admissions have remained relatively flat at 70,000 per year since 2000, those immigrants skew younger than more highly educated immigrant groups. More than 50 percent of Syrian refugees, one group that will be entirely blocked, are school age children, for example. A reduction in refugee numbers will have a disproportionate impact on new ELL students entering public school systems.

 Children of Unauthorized Immigrants Comprise 7 Percent of K-12 LEPs

Although Pew Research reports that unauthorized immigration has largely stabilized or even decreased in the wake of the Great Recession, they have also found that the children of unauthorized immigrants make up an increasing percentage of K-12 school students. Enforcement actions, then, designed to remove these families have the potential to reduce school populations generally by more than 7 percent, with an even more outsized impact on LEP segments specifically.

General Discouragement of Immigration is Likely to Affect Even Legal Immigrant Applications

With changes to visa programs and a generally discouraging policy for even relatively affluent, well-educated immigrants, many otherwise eligible immigrants are likely to look to alternatives such as Canada and Europe as destinations. Although these classes of immigrants do not tend to have as many children as the refugee or unauthorized immigrant populations, they do tend to settle outside of the clusters of populations with the largest ELL needs. This will mean that, instead of the reduction in ESL demand being focused in less affluent states and districts where unauthorized migrants settle, it will be felt across the public school spectrum.

Those Who Remain, May Not Remain in School

Finally, with enforcement efforts being increased, many immigrant families might feel pressure to take their children out of school. With ICE raids already beginning, unauthorized immigrants are becoming wary of any official contacts that could lead to their discovery. Although student privacy laws currently on the books technically prevent ICE from obtaining citizenship or documentation status from school records, indications that the Department of Homeland Security may be willing to bend the rules in enforcement actions under the new administration has left immigrants wary.

Can Federal Funding for Education Be Removed For ESL Programs?

Perhaps an even larger impact to ESL programs could come from the administration’s efforts to block federal funding to so-called sanctuary cities that refuse to cooperate with ICE enforcement efforts.

Most such cities have large immigrant populations—usually the reason for the sanctuary policy in the first place—and so also large LEP populations in their school systems. And because NCLB Title III funding has become the predominant funding source for ESL programs, they are particularly vulnerable to federal funding cuts.

Although an executive order to that effect has already been signed and published, no official actions have yet been made to remove funding. Any such process is bound to end up in court, with litigation stretching on for years before any final judgment would be made.

One wrinkle, however, is that most funding actually happens at the state level through block grants. State departments of education determine the precise breakdown of distributing Title III funds, not the federal government. So it is not possible for the federal government to directly target individual cities, and the process for removing state funding would be considerably more difficult.

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In some jurisdictions, states might be willing to work with the government to single out individual sanctuary cities, but in many cases the states will prove a significant roadblock to removing federal education funding.

Although the importance of ESL education to LEP students won’t be diminished in any way, it seems very likely that the number of those students—and their access to that education—will be reduced markedly in the coming years. Although there are no immediate changes in the works in any of the legislation that has shaped ESL education over the past thirty years, the effects on funding and the student population may cause a reversion to less intensive ESL programs in the future and English language learners that are less prepared for life in the United States.