23 Percent of Public Schoolchildren Live in Immigrant Households
Study raises new questions about America's capacity to assimilate growing foreign-born population
Almost a quarter of the nation’s public school students live in immigrant households, raising questions about America’s long-term ability to continue its tradition of assimilation, according to a study released Thursday.
The report, published by the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, indicates that 23 percent of public school students live in a household with at least one immigrant parent. That is more than double the percentage in 1990 and up from 7 percent in 1980.
“We all like to think we’re independent, but the fact is we’re all social animals. It’s a huge question that’s not even being asked.”
Because immigrants are not evenly distributed throughout the country, however, some schools have significantly higher percentages of immigrant children. The report breaks down the data by census units called public use microdata areas, which are roughly between 100,000 and 200,000 residents and generally respect county or city boundaries. The average number of public school students in each PUMA is about 20.600.
The think tank has produced an interactive map showing the data in each PUMA.
Of the nation’s 2,351 PUMAs, just 700 account for two-thirds of all students from immigrant households. Those areas also account for almost a third of all public school enrollment. Within those PUMAs, many have student enrollments where the children of immigrants account for 70 percent or more of all students.
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Percentages that high raise questions about whether America’s historic melting pot will be able to absorb newcomers into the larger culture, said Steven Camarota, one of the study’s authors.
“We all know that people are shaped by the people around you … We all like to think we’re independent, but the fact is we’re all social animals,” said Camarota, director of research at the think tank. “It’s a huge question that’s not even being asked.”
Immigrant households overall represent 13.5 percent of the total. Camarota said children from immigrant households make up a much larger share of the public school population because of slightly higher birth rates among immigrants and because children from native households are more likely to attend private school.
School systems that have large numbers of students with poor English skills also incur costs associated with making students proficient in their non-native language. A study last year for the Federation for American Immigration Reform indicated that one in 10 students have been designated as Limited English Proficiency. The cost of LEP programs is $59.8 billion a year.
The Center for Immigration Studies report estimates that between a quarter and a third of the public school students from immigrant households in 2015 were the children of illegal immigrants. Most of those children — of both legal and illegal immigrants — are American citizens because they were born in the United States. The report pegs it at 83.5 percent.
Whether U.S.-born or born abroad, though, Camarota said the same questions about assimilation apply. For instance, the average student who speaks a foreign language at home lives in a PUMA where 42 percent of their classmates also speak a foreign language.
The greater the share of people who speak other languages, the less pressure there is to learn English, Camarota said.
He said that in an era of identity politics, immigrants receive mixed messages about whether they should even try to assimilate.
“As a country, we can’t even agree on what we want,” he said.
Immigrant-heavy PUMAs also often are associated with high rates of poverty, according to the report. Overall across the country, 28 percent of students living in immigrant households are poor, while 19 percent of those in native households are. Students from immigrant households made up 30 percent of all students living below the poverty line.
In the 200 PUMAs with the highest poverty rates, nearly a third of students are from immigrant households. The poverty rates among all public school students in those areas average 46 percent.
Camarota said that means that many schools struggling with the challenges presented by high levels of poverty often face the increased burden of a rising population.
"As a consequence, what you get is both an increase in enrollment without a corresponding increase in the tax base," he said.
And on top of the typical challenges faced by high-poverty schools, those with high immigrant populations also tend to have the added issue of high numbers of students speaking a foreign language — sometimes multiple languages.
"You have a lot going on," he said.