Enhancing Literacy Levels of Immigrant Populations


“We have an obligation and a responsibility to be investing in our students and our schools. We must make sure that people who have the grades, the desire, and the will, but not the money, can still get the best education possible” (“Barack Obama quotes,” n.d.). Every child in the United States, regardless of their citizenship and immigration status, has the right to education. The law mandates all children between the age of six and sixteen enroll in school. However, post-secondary education is only accessible to American citizens, learners with a legal visa, and those with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) status (Murriel). These requirements lockout many immigrant children from accessing college-level education. Given the increasing role that immigrants play in America’s economy, it is only fair that they are given equal opportunity for post-secondary education. Illegal immigrants should have more educational opportunities to keep studying after high school without worrying if they have a social number because we are all human. We all should have the same opportunities to complete a professional career.

General Description of the Topic

However, there seems to be contention on the primary causes of the low academic achievements. One view holds that poverty and other socioeconomic factors are the primary cause of the immigrants’ low educational attainment levels. The other view is that cultural barriers, including limited English proficiency, are the main access barrier. While both perspectives could be valid for some immigrant groups, they have ignored the role documentation policies in college entry requirements play in limited immigrants’ access to education. Children, accounting for 15% of the immigration population, have been raised for the most part in the United States (Enyioha 2). According to Enyioha, about 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school every year (2). Unfortunately, these children face the uncertainty of joining colleges after graduating from high school despite much of their education being taken from the United States. Sadly, most of these children’s inability to access post-secondary education is not because of low academic qualifications but their documentation status. The National Immigration Center defines an undocumented student as anyone who was not born in the U.S. but has immigrated, lived, and attended U.S. schools.

A student can only join a college as an American citizen or have a DACA status or legal passport. Several initiatives being established to improve education access in immigrant communities, but the enrolment rate is still low. Most of these children are asked to attend private schools where tuition is twice the public schools’ fee (Murriel). Public schools receive funding from the government and, therefore, are mandated to comply with regulations that prohibit discrimination. In contrast, private schools do not receive funding and can establish their admission policies and requirements for financial aid. Many immigrant students face challenges paying their tuition fees because of their poor socioeconomic backgrounds (Simkins). Therefore, most depend on scholarships and financial aid to go through college. However, applying for these programs requires the students to have licit documentation. Some scholarships and programs explicitly state that applicants must be permanent residents or U.S. citizens.

The legal sphere plays a critical role in enabling these discriminatory practices. Numerous legislations prohibit undocumented students from accessing post-secondary education and other federal benefits. For example, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Responsibility Act states that undocumented immigrants are ineligible for post-secondary education, unemployment benefits, assisted housing programs, food assistance, disability and welfare support, etc. (Enyioha 4). The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act declares that state residence is not an eligibility basis for an undocumented immigrant to postgraduate education (Enyioha 4). South Carolina and Alabama prohibit undocumented students from attending higher institutions in the state. Such students either have to enroll in an out-of-state school or a private institution.

The outcome of these policies is wasted talent, devastation, hopelessness, and bright students being forced into menial and low-paying jobs. Ximena narrates how devastated she was when she could not apply for financial aid despite everything she did. She states that “We may not know what our future looks like right now, but we’re definitely working hard” (Federis). What is appalling about this situation is that those students who opt to join private schools will not stand a chance in the employment sector even though twice as much tuition fees. Undocumented immigrants cannot legally work in the United States and risk being deported anytime.

The U.S. is currently plagued with the brain waste phenomenon, which refers to individuals with academic and professional qualifications working in nonprofessional industries. Without a college degree, students cannot qualify for skilled jobs. These discriminatory practices in the education and employment sector have forced many talented and young minds into menial and low-skilled jobs. A study conducted by Passel and Cohn showed that immigrants are disproportionately clustered in low-skilled occupations partly because of their educational attainment and the limitations their legal status places on their employment. The study showed that 26% of the immigrant labor force work in farming, 22% in private household employment, 88% in the laundry and dry-cleaning industry, and 15% in the construction industry (Passel and Cohn). The authors further revealed that undocumented immigrants accounted for the most significant proportion in the sectors mentioned above (Passel and Cohn). Immigrant workers were least represented in management, sales, and office support jobs.

Education is a fundamental human right whose benefits to individuals and society are many. It has been used to fight many socioeconomic issues to enhance a country’s sustainable development and nation-building. Education has been positively correlated with positive health and nutrition outcomes. It improves the community’s knowledge and the skills required to enhance sustainable living. Empirical literature also shows that it can break generational poverty cycles and reduce crime rates in education, including child labor, exploitation, and trafficking. Education shapes students’ understanding of society and helps them appreciate the sociocultural factors that pervade their communities.

Therefore, denying undocumented immigrants of educational opportunities is not just a gross human rights violation but also imposes emotional and socioeconomic costs on society and individual students. The American paradox describes America’s indecisiveness on whether it accepts or rejects the immigrant offsprings that are changing its ethnic and demographic profile (Uma 123). The apparent education deficit in the American education system is a clear sign of the American paradox. The government has failed to uphold and protect the children’s fundamental right to education.

What is the essence of supporting a child’s education without a clear plan on how their future will turn out? Immigrants significantly contribute to our economy: they account for 5% or five million of the total civilian workforce (Passel and Cohn). They work at high rates, pay taxes, and their geographic mobility enables the local economy to respond to labor shortages effectively. For this reason alone, it is only fair that undocumented immigrants are accorded equal education opportunities.

A Discussion of Those Affected

The immigrant population in the United States accounts for at least one-fifth of the world’s total immigrants. By 2018, approximately the 44.8 million immigrants living in the country accounted for 13.7% of the total U.S. population (Budiman). A survey from the Pew Research Center shows that 23% (10.5 million) of U.S immigrants are unauthorized or undocumented (Budiman). The birth rates among immigrant women are higher than U.S-born women. According to Pew Research Center, the birth rate among immigrant women was 7.5% compared to 5.7% in U.S women (Budiman). Immigrants gave birth to approximately 760 000 children in 2017 alone (Budiman). While these children will be raised in America, they will have different educational outcomes than their counterparts.

While the immigrant population in the U.S. is substantial, their education level is problematic. Immigrants are three times less likely to complete high school education than their U.S born counterparts (Budiman). The percentage of U.S-born Americans and immigrants that did not complete high school in 2018 was 8% and 27%, respectively (Budiman). Interestingly, research shows that immigrants are as likely as U.S.-born citizens to attain a bachelor’s degree. Despite having the same capacity to earn a post-secondary degree, immigrants still have low post-secondary education attainment rates. Only 17.2% of immigrants have a bachelor’s degree, and 12.8% a postgraduate degree (Budiman). About three-quarters of immigrants from the Caribbean and Latin America have no college degrees. It is clear from this analysis that immigrants have lower educational attainments than their U.S born counterparts.

Personal Account of Someone Affected

Working at a social work program, I met a homeless immigrant who gave up on a college degree for lack of financial support and deportation fear. The immigrant shared that they feared that the law enforcement would come after them and their families if their documentation status revealed their undocumented status. Therefore, they opted to give up on their dream of going to college to protect their families. Many of these children are locked out of scholarships, financial aid, and enrolment programs because of their documentation status. Ivette Roman, born in Peru, is another example of an undocumented student illegally brought to the U.S. by her parents (Federis). Despite completing her secondary education, Ivette’s dream of going to college has been put on hold because of her documentation status (Fideris). Another learner, Ximena, graduated from high school but did not join college because she could not even apply for financial aid or scholarships (Fideris). Paradoxically, these programs aim to improve minority groups’ access to education yet establish discriminative eligibility requirements.

Potential Solution or Opportunity for Assistance

Eliminating the mandatory documentation entry requirements will improve educational outcomes in the community. In a study conducted by Ziller (2014), non-discriminatory policies significantly improve education outcomes. Additionally, programs that have provided undocumented students with equal educational opportunities have achieved significant results. For example, President Obama announced undocumented youths a temporary renewable legal status in the United States provided that they met higher education, employment, and military service expectations. Between 2012 and 2017, over 800 000 youths had enrolled in the DACA program following Obama’s announcement (Enyioha 5). Center for American Progress announced the program had improved youth’s access to education and involvement in occupations with higher socioeconomic mobility. The number of youths enrolled in the DACA program demonstrates the undocumented youth’s enthusiasm to join higher education institutions. It is clear from the above analysis that documentation requirements are inequitable and a barrier to education access. Therefore, it is logical to argue that removing this barrier will improve undocumented youth’s access to education.


A significant percentage of undocumented students successfully navigate through primary and secondary education. Unfortunately, their documentation status severely limits their chances to access post-secondary education. Students cannot access financial aid and enrollment programs, forcing most immigrants to low-skilled jobs. Eliminating the mandatory documentation entry requirements will improve educational outcomes as more students will be able to enroll in post-secondary education and access financial resources to support their education.

Works Cited

Barack Obama quotes. (n.d.). GoodReads. Web.

Budiman, Abby. “Key Findings Of U.S. Immigrants.” Pew Research Center, 2020, Web.

Enyioha, Jessica C. “College Access for Undocumented Students and Law.” Educational Considerations, vol. 45, no. 1, 2019, pp. 1–11. Web.

Federis, Marnette. “A New Generation of ‘Un-DACAmented’ high School Graduates Fights Hurdles to Higher Ed.” The World, 2019, Web.

Murriel, Maria. “Why the path to college is not clear for some immigrant students.” The World, 2016, Web.

Passel, Jeffrey S., and D’Vera Cohn. “Size of U.S Unauthorized Immigrant Workforce Stable after the Great Recession.” Pew Research Center, 2016, Web.

Simkins, Chris. “Illegal Immigrants Offered Lower Tuition for Higher Education.” VOA News, 2012, Web.

Uma, Segal. “Education and Migrants: A View from the United States of America.” Journal of Education, vol. 6, no. 1, 2018, pp. 120–140. Web.

Ziller, Conrad. “Societal Implications of Antidiscrimination Policy in Europe.” Research and Politics, vol. 1, no. 3, 2014, pp. 1–9. Web.

Improving SOL Scores of Minority Students in Granby Elementary School in Virginia

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