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At least 600,000 K-12 undocumented students need a pathway to citizenship

Most are ineligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)

Teachers and school administrators are preparing to welcome students back into the classroom this fall, knowing that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will present real and unique challenges for the whole community. But hundreds of thousands of K-12 undocumented students will bear additional, enormous burdens: a persistent fear and uncertainty about their future in this country, and anxiety over whether they can continue building their lives and stay together with their families here.

FWD.us estimates that approximately 620,000 K-12 students in the United States are undocumented.1 More than half of K-12 undocumented students (54%) are from Central and South American countries, including Mexico (130,000), Honduras (50,000), Guatemala (40,000), and El Salvador (30,000). Another 22% are from Asia, while 7% are from sub-Saharan African countries and 5% are from Caribbean countries. We estimate that at least 100,000 of these undocumented students are waiting for a decision on their asylum application. These undocumented students came to the U.S. as children and are part of the Dreamer population.

Additional analysis shows that most states have at least 1,000 undocumented students in their K-12 schools. This number is significantly higher in several states, with some of the highest undocumented student populations living in Texas (111,000), Florida (74,000), and California (72,000). In the 1982 Plyler v. Doe decision, the Supreme Court affirmed that states are required to provide education for all children, regardless of their immigration status.

Most States Have Thousands of K-12 Undocumented Students

State

K-12 student population

Alabama

6,000

Alaska

<1,000

Arizona

13,000

Arkansas

5,000

California

72,000

Colorado

8,000

Connecticut

9,000

Delaware

1,000

District of Columbia

<1,000

Florida

74,000

Georgia

25,000

Hawaii

3,000

Idaho

1,000

Illinois

14,000

Indiana

13,000

Iowa

3,000

Kansas

8,000

Kentucky

5,000

Louisiana

4,000

Maine

<1,000

Maryland

15,000

Massachusetts

9,000

Michigan

7,000

Minnesota

7,000

Mississippi

2,000

Missouri

4,000

Montana

<1,000

Nebraska

4,000

Nevada

7,000

New Hampshire

2,000

New Jersey

29,000

New Mexico

2,000

New York

33,000

North Carolina

19,000

North Dakota

1,000

Ohio

10,000

Oklahoma

4,000

Oregon

4,000

Pennsylvania

11,000

Rhode Island

1,000

South Carolina

11,000

South Dakota

<1,000

Tennessee

12,000

Texas

111,000

Utah

11,000

Vermont

<1,000

Virginia

17,000

Washington

15,000

West Virginia

<1,000

Wisconsin

5,000

Wyoming

<1,000

Note: Estimates rounded to thousands.
Source: FWD.us analysis of 2019 American Community Survey augmented data. K-12 students in 2021 are assumed to have been ages 3 to 16 in 2019.
All told, nearly 550,000 K-12 undocumented students would never be eligible to apply for DACA under current rules”

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) allows certain undocumented individuals who arrived to the U.S. at a young age to seek protection from deportation, and work authorization. Unfortunately, the majority of undocumented K-12 students in the 2021-2022 school year (70%) are too young to request DACA, as it has a minimum age requirement of 15 years old. Additionally, the overwhelming majority (at least 88%) of K-12 students who are currently undocumented arrived in the U.S. after 2007, the latest year that individuals must have been living in the United States in order to be eligible for DACA protections.

U.S. District Judge Hanen’s recent decision on DACA now means that first-time requests from undocumented students can no longer be processed, even if they are eligible for DACA. This means that more than 50,000 undocumented rising high school seniors this year will be unable to access DACA, a crucial time in which they are preparing for college and career opportunities.

All told, nearly 550,000 K-12 undocumented students would never be eligible to request DACA under current rules. These students would be forced to remain undocumented, putting themselves and their families at extraordinary risk. They would also be left out of any legislation that attempts to provide solutions solely for currently enrolled or eligible DACA recipients.

Undocumented students barred from receiving DACA, particularly those in high school, will face barriers many of their peers do not

Research shows that having lawful presence, like DACA, allows undocumented students to make substantial educational gains. Undocumented students barred from receiving DACA, particularly those in high school, will face barriers many of their peers do not, including the inability in many states to obtain a driver’s license. They may also be ineligible for part-time jobs or to qualify for in-state tuition rates, even if they have lived there for years. These and other stressors can affect students’ mental health and, ultimately, their educational success.

School leaders like teachers and administrators also face challenges in supporting undocumented students. Most of these students are proficient in English, but newer students may continue to struggle learning a new language, especially if their family are not native English speakers. Also, schools often help students work through the traumatic events many of them may have experienced while coming to the U.S. from their countries of origin; this can present challenges to school administrators seeking to address student needs.

Beyond undocumented students, schools also interact daily with more than 3.9 million K-12 U.S. citizen students with undocumented parents. In all, about 8%, or some 4.5 million, of all K-12 students—undocumented and U.S. citizen—have an undocumented parent, with even higher shares in Texas (15%), Nevada (15%), California (12%), and New Jersey (11%).

Most States Have Tens of Thousands of K-12 Students with Undocumented Parents

State

K-12 students with undocumented parent(s)

% of all K-12 students

Alabama

32,000

4

Alaska

1,000

<1

Arizona

121,000

9

Arkansas

35,000

6

California

882,000

12

Colorado

71,000

7

Connecticut

43,000

7

Delaware

12,000

7

District of Columbia

4,000

4

Florida

290,000

9

Georgia

174,000

9

Hawaii

15,000

6

Idaho

17,000

5

Illinois

193,000

9

Indiana

59,000

5

Iowa

27,000

5

Kansas

38,000

7

Kentucky

26,000

3

Louisiana

19,000

2

Maine

2,000

<1

Maryland

94,000

9

Massachusetts

46,000

4

Michigan

38,000

2

Minnesota

36,000

4

Mississippi

10,000

2

Missouri

28,000

3

Montana

2,000

1

Nebraska

24,000

7

Nevada

81,000

15

New Hampshire

5,000

3

New Jersey

170,000

11

New Mexico

22,000

6

New York

203,000

7

North Carolina

173,000

10

North Dakota

2,000

1

Ohio

47,000

2

Oklahoma

45,000

6

Oregon

53,000

8

Pennsylvania

54,000

3

Rhode Island

8,000

5

South Carolina

45,000

5

South Dakota

2,000

<1

Tennessee

70,000

6

Texas

890,000

15

Utah

49,000

7

Vermont

1,000

2

Virginia

114,000

8

Washington

128,000

10

West Virginia

2,000

<1

Wisconsin

42,000

4

Wyoming

4,000

3

Note: Counts and percentages are rounded.
Source: FWD.us analysis of 2019 American Community Survey augmented data. K-12 students in 2021 are assumed to have been ages 3 to 16 in 2019.
Congress must act to ensure that these hundreds of thousands of undocumented students are able to stay with their families, earn an education, and participate fully in their communities.

Congress must act to ensure that these hundreds of thousands of undocumented students are able to stay with their families, earn an education, and participate fully in their communities. This means creating a pathway to citizenship for these undocumented students. FWD.us national polling shows that 71% of U.S. voters support Dreamers, undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, being offered a pathway to citizenship.

These numbers show that overly narrow and restrictive proposals to provide solutions only for currently enrolled or eligible DACA recipients will leave hundreds of thousands of students and families out with no opportunity to secure lawful immigration status and keep their families together in the United States. Legislative proposals must be clear about including all Dreamers.

The American Dream and Promise Act, which passed out of the House of Representatives with strong bipartisan support, would offer a pathway to citizenship to these undocumented K-12 students. The Senate needs to take up this bill immediately to resolve these challenges in America’s schools. Also, a proposed budget reconciliation process that includes all Dreamers, regardless of time in the U.S., would permit undocumented K-12 students a pathway to citizenship.

America’s students and schools need a long-term solution to this enduring issue. Congress needs to find solutions, including a pathway to citizenship, for these students and their families today.

Phillip Connor

Senior Demographer

Notes

  1. See our Methodology on how we estimate the number of undocumented immigrants using the 2019 American Community Survey (ACS). Students entering school in 2021 were ages 3 to 16 in 2019 ACS data; most recent arrivals of undocumented students in 2019 through 2021 are not included in this estimate. With thousands of children seeking asylum during these years, this estimate is conservative.
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