Crying Wolf About Immigrant Education

Blog Post
May 12, 2006

Recent demonstrations in Washington and other major cities have focused on a range of immigration issues, including employment, language, and border control. They also highlight an education issue of growing importance: providing a high-quality education to the children of immigrants. The percentage of Americans born outside the United States has increased from an all-time low of less than 5 percent in 1970 to over 12 percent and rising today. As a result, nearly 20 percent of K-12 students are the children of immigrants, more than triple the proportion of 35 years ago.

But discussions about the education of immigrants are too often boiled down to simplistic narratives alleging that schools are being overwhelmed by a wave of primarily Mexican and often-undocumented immigrants who are difficult to teach because they can't speak English. A 2005 Urban Institute study finds that those ideas are at best over-simplified and at worse incorrect.

First, most foreign-born students aren't Mexican. As Chart One shows, 63 percent of foreign-born students in grades PK-5 were born in Europe, Canada, Asia, Africa, and other countries. Mexico is a much larger source of students than in past decades, but it still only provides a little more than one-third of foreign-born children.

Second, the large majority of school-age children of immigrants aren't undocumented. As Chart Two shows, undocumented immigrants make up only 1.5 percent of children in grades PK-5. By contrast, 1.8 percent of PK-5 children are first-generation immigrants with legal permanent resident or naturalized citizen status, and 15.6 percent are U.S. citizens born of immigrant parents.

Third, most children of immigrants are proficient in English. As Chart Three shows, there were 10.8 million school-age children of immigrants living in the United States in 2000, compared to only 3.3 million students who have been categorized as Limited English Proficient (LEP).

Fourth, most LEP students aren't foreign-born. In fact, a significant number of LEP students aren't the children of immigrants at all. As Chart Four shows, less than half of students with limited English proficiency are first-generation immigrants. Significantly, more than one in five LEP students are third-generation immigrants, indicating that some of the biggest challenges in helping students learn English lie with native-born children in linguistically isolated households.

There's no doubt that immigration issues loom larger for educators in 2006 than in years past. Immigrant children are the fastest-growing sector of the U.S. youth population. But the foreign-born percentage of the population has yet to reach levels that were common in the late 19th and earliest 20th centuries. The challenge is to plan, not panic.

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