• By Josie Danini Cortez, M.A. • IDRA Newsletter • November- December 2007

The Challenge

Josie CortezThis country’s challenge is not, as some believe, that we have too many immigrant children in our schools. Our challenge is that many of our schools do not know how to best educate immigrant children.

In the United States today, there are more than 5.1 million children under the age of six whose parents are undocumented. One in five children is enrolled in K-12 schools, and it is expected that they will represent 25 percent of the K-12 student population four years from now. Most school-age children of immigrants are highly concentrated in six states (California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York and Texas). In 2000, almost half (47 percent) of California’s school-age children were children of immigrants (Fix and Capps, 2005).

Over the last 10 years, four cities – Atlanta, Charlotte, Las Vegas and Omaha – have had more immigrant children enroll in their schools than any other city. These and other schools find themselves with administrators and teachers unable to serve the 7 million Spanish-speaking and 1.5 million Asian-language-speaking children and families.

These immigrant families are no different than most of this country’s immigrants throughout our history. They are mostly poor, have few English language skills and are unfamiliar with our school system.

And like immigrants before them, our recent immigrants are often subjected to discrimination and injustice. Whether it has been the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II or Irish children laboring in New York sweatshops, immigrant families often have had to overcome significant barriers.

In today’s schools, most English language learners find themselves in large urban schools, linguistically and culturally isolated, with principals and teachers lacking the skills and experience to help them achieve. This lack of preparation and support is most evident in schools with high concentrations of English language learners. Most are failing their students academically.

And like immigrants before them, our recent immigrants bring immeasurable contributions to this country. When schools embrace and nurture the language and culture of immigrant children, the country reaps the benefits of diversity. Sixty percent of U.S. top science students and 65 percent of the top mathematics students are the children of immigrants. Stuart Anderson in The Multiplier Effect (2004) found that half of the 2004 U.S. Math Olympiad top scorers, one third of the U.S. Physics Team, and one quarter of the Intel Science Talent Search finalists were all children of immigrants.

How do school administrators and teachers, most of whom were children of immigrants themselves, do what is right and what is needed for immigrant children?

The Answer

Part of the answer lies in states and schools following this country’s federal laws. Children of undocumented immigrants have a right to a free public education and cannot be discriminated against for the color of their skin or the language they speak.

Twenty-five years ago, in Plyler vs. Doe (457 U.S. 202, 1982), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that “aliens” are recognized as persons and guaranteed due process by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments: “He…is entitled to the equal protection of the laws that a State may choose to establish.”

In Lau vs. Nichols, the courts ruled that providing the same all-English educational programs to children who were not fluent in English was unlawful. As a result, public schools must provide an education to all children, including undocumented immigrant children. Dr. José A. Cárdenas (IDRA founder and director emeritus) and IDRA played a critical role in this and other court decisions, providing expert testimony and key resources.

Reflecting on this work, Dr. Cárdenas wrote: “I consider my participation in the undocumented immigrant children litigation as one of the most satisfying educational experiences of my life. It exemplifies the altruistic nature of IDRA and its staff. I was asked frequently what hidden strategy underlined our participation in the suits, and how such participation related to some master plan. There was no hidden strategy; there was no master plan. The undocumented children were being abused by the educational system of Texas, and as advocates for children we came to their aid.” (1995)

The court decisions led state education agencies and schools to change the way they served undocumented children. Schools had to identify English language learners and evaluate a student’s language skills and academic achievement in both languages, providing them with an education that would enable them to achieve academic success.

While this is the law of the land, some states have passed policies that make it difficult, if not impossible, to follow Plyler vs. Doe. Six years ago, Arizona passed the nation’s strictest English-only instruction policy. Proposition 203 imposed restrictions on the use of immigrant children’s first language in the classroom. One out of five children could not speak their home language in classrooms, nor were they provided comprehensible instruction. Arizona children had to sink or swim, and most sunk.

A study by Jeff McSwan at Arizona State University found that 89 percent of immigrant children who scored non-proficient in 2003 were still not proficient in English a year later. Here is state policy that results in an 89 percent failure rate. As McSwan points out, state policies that restrict “teachers’ use of immigrant children’s first language as an instructional resource are rooted in politics and ideology” (2006).

Solving a school’s failure rate must begin with a clear understanding of the law and with policies that are crafted in the best interest of all children. The proof this effort works will ultimately lie in change – a change in state policies, a change in classrooms with better prepared and supported teachers, a change in immigrant children’s life chances.

This is a particularly polarizing, divisive time in U.S. history. Amazingly, despite the fact that this country was founded by immigrants, despite the fact that “we are all immigrants…Some of us just got here sooner” (2006), despite all that we know, we find ourselves defending rights that were long ago fought for and established.

Immigrant children have rights, and if we are not vigilant, those rights will be denied, and we will all pay the price for the loss.

We are paying for it now, with unskilled workers, with poverty increasing while a few get richer, with words and acts that dehumanize people.

Perhaps Bishop Thomas Wenski said it best: “When we consider a human being as a problem, we depersonalize him, we offend his human dignity. When we allow any class of human beings to be categorized as a problem, then we give ourselves permission to look for solutions. And as the history of the 20th Century has proven, sometimes we look for final solutions.” (2006-07)

If we begin with the youngest and the most vulnerable, our immigrant children, and give them the education they need to succeed, then this country stands a chance. For our power has always come from our diversity and the innovation, pride and strength that it brings.


Anderson, S. “The Multiplier Effect,” International Educator (2004).

Cárdenas, J.A. Multicultural Education: A Generation of Advocacy (Needham Heights, Mass.: Simon and Schuster Custom Publishing, 1995) pg. 248.

Fix, M., and R. Capps. “Immigrant Children, Urban Schools, and the No Child Left Behind Act,”Migration Information Source (November 1, 2005).

Kammer, J. “American Dreamers,” Notre Dame Magazine (Winter 2006-07, Vo. 35, No. 4).

McSwan, J. “Policies Fail State’s Growing English-Learner Population,” Arizona Republic (May. 21, 2006).

Quindlen, A. “Undocumented, Indispensable,” Newsweek (May 15, 2006).

Josie Danini Cortez, M.A. is a senior education associate in IDRA Field Services. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2007, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the November- December 2007 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]