Amid immigration fight, making sure 'new American children' get an education

There are about 17 million "new American" children in the country, many of whom need support closing the achievement gap
Image: Undocumented children step out of sanctuary at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia on Jan. 29, 2018.
Undocumented children step out of sanctuary at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia on Jan. 29, 2018. The children intend to go back to school for the first time since the family received a deportation order.Bastiaan Slabbers / NurPhoto via Getty Images file

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By Laura Picardo

For Yael Ross, studying the impact of immigration on a child's education is "very personal."

Ross, an immigrant from Mexico and a former teacher, is the director of the Center for New American Children & Education at the organization Children at Risk, a nonpartisan research and advocacy organization dedicated to addressing the root causes of poor public policies affecting children.

Ross’ work aims to understand the best ways to help the estimated 17 million "new American children," which her organization defines as U.S. citizen children with documented immigrant parents; U.S. citizen children with undocumented immigrant parents; undocumented minors; and "Dreamers," recipients of an Obama-era program that allows young immigrants who were brought the U.S. illegally as children to remain in the country.

The Center for New American Children started in January 2018 with the goal of analyzing and understanding the impact of recent immigration enforcement policies on Texas schools. Through research and advocacy, the center is working to understand the best ways to help children from immigrant communities get the support they need to get a high-quality education.

“I came to the United States for graduate school, and my journey was hard, so I can’t imagine how hard it is for someone who didn’t have the same support I had,” said Ross, who holds a bachelor's in educational psychology from the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City and a master’s degree in education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Yael Ross, Director of the Center for New American Children.Alan Ross

A 2018 study from UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, which noted an increase in worries related to immigration enforcement and a 70 percent decline in academic performance among new American children, served as a catalyst for her work and research.

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“As a kid, or really anyone, emotions are a shared experience. So kids will pick up on their family’s fear. When they don’t have the same perspective and maturity, emotions will become a challenge when trying to close an achievement gap,” Ross said.

The center is currently partnering with established organizations providing direct services to children and families in Houston, including the Houston Independent School District, Baker Ripley, and Yes Prep Public Schools. The organizations run focus groups with immigrant families, interview immigration lawyers and perform online surveys to assess what the children's needs are and tailor unique approaches.

Their 2019 report "Immigration & Education: Impact and Challenges on Our Public Schools," chronicles their findings.

According to Ross, one of the first ways to help is providing teachers with better professional development in understanding mental health.

“Schools need to prioritize what teachers actually really need to know and either give teachers the training in recognizing things like depression and anxiety or bring the professionals into the schools so they can actually support the students," Ross said.

This way, teachers can understand that certain behaviors often come from a student being in survival mode due to outside factors like food or home insecurity and fear of deportation.

She also says that it is important to understand some of the cultural context behind a student’s success.

“Don’t assume that everyone has the same education and background that you have," Ross said. "We all assume things based on where we grew up, and it doesn’t come from a bad place, but we have to understand that there are more ways than how we grew up.”

According to Ross, this can lead to misconceptions that parents aren’t engaged in their child’s education when, in reality, they are living in fear of deportation or come from cultures that are not as outspoken when it comes to demanding certain things.

As a nonprofit, one of the challenges the Center for New American Children is facing is securing funders. “When you use the word ‘immigration,’ every word after it becomes political and not child focused. Sometimes companies don’t want their name associated with something perceived to be too political. It’s a real challenge,” Ross said.

This story appears as part of coverage for “NBC News Learn Presents: Education Now Houston,” a two-hour live community event supported by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. For more information, go to nbcnews.com/learnhouston.

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