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Educating Immigrant Children: the American DREAM Deferred?

by Lisa García Bedolla - January 25, 2011

Within the context of the failure of the DREAM Act, this piece considers the factors affecting the education of immigrant children in the United States.

In December 2010, Congress failed to pass the DREAM Act, a law that would allow unauthorized immigrant children who were brought to the United States by their parents before the age of 16 an opportunity to regularize their migration status, either by joining the military or attending two years of college. In an opinion piece that appeared in the Chicago Tribune, former Illinois governor and Republican Jim Edgar said he supported the DREAM Act because “[a] rational approach to comprehensive immigration reform should begin with the young people who were brought here as babies, toddlers and adolescents. Many have worked hard in school. Some want to serve in our military. All are undocumented. They live every day in fear of being caught, uprooted and sent to a country some have never known as their home. A nation as kind as ours should not turn its back on them.”

Beyond the significance this legislative failure has for the estimated 2.5 million unauthorized youth currently living in the United States, Congress’ inability to pass this most innocuous of immigration reforms also speaks to a larger and more serious problem within American politics – our nation’s lack of any sort of integration program for the more than 40 million immigrants currently living in the United States. Nowhere is this lack of integration more evident than within our K12 school system. It is estimated that onefourth of the American student population is of immigrant origin. Yet, their needs are largely invisible within the current educational policy context. As Suárez Orozco and Suárez Orozco (2009) point out,

Newcomer immigrant students enter an education system shaped by school reform policies that fail to consider their particular needs or realities. In the No Child Left Behind highstakes testing climate, immigrant children are expected to achieve educationally in ways that are contradicted by the realities of academic language learning in American classrooms today. Newcomer students who enter midway through their educational career in early adolescence, for example, are expected to master a new academic language (something that typically takes five to seven years under optimal circumstances), while also learning all of the explicit and implicit curriculum their nativeborn peers have been exposed to over the course of their entire educational experience. Given the dual pressures of this condensed time frame – of mastering that body of information, while often attending less than optimal schools – the odds are stacked highly against new arrivals. (pp. 328-329)

This is because, in the United States, immigration policy “largely starts and ends at the border; later processes of immigrant integration are considered outside the purview of state action” (Bloemraad, 2006, p. 2). That laissezfaire approach to immigrant integration, what Suárez Orozco and Suárez Orozco (2009) call the “sink or swim” method, is a product of American political history rather than of an evidencebased understanding of how best to integrate the foreign born and their children into the fabric of the nation. Other countries, such as Canada, take a more supportive approach to immigrant integration, and studies suggest they achieve more positive results (Bloemraad, 2006; Suárez Orozco, et al. 2008).

Rather than providing additional supports to immigrant students, recent scholarship indicates that immigrant students in the United States often receive fewer resources than the native born. In their analysis of the status of English Language Learners (ELLs) in California, Rumberger and Gándara (2004) find that ELL students were much more likely to be taught by uncertified teachers, spent less time on academic tasks during the school day than nonELL students, and had less access to adequate learning materials and school facilities. EL teachers, in addition, were found to be less likely to receive professional development funding from the state than were teachers engaged in nonEL instruction.

Given this lack of resources, it is not surprising that Rumberger and Gándara (2004) also find that a significant achievement gap exists between current and former English language learners and Englishonly students.1 They show that by 11th grade, former and current ELL students were reading at the levels Englishonly students achieved between 6th and 7th grades – a gap of 4.5 years. This finding is all the more striking given that many of the most academically challenged English learners likely have dropped out of school by 11th grade (Rumberger and Gándara, 2004, p. 2035). The same differences can be seen when looking at outcomes from the California High School Exit Exam (CHSEE), a standardsbased, criterion referenced test. Rumberger and Gándara (2004, p. 2035) find that, after two opportunities to pass the test, only 19 percent of English language learners from the 2004 graduating class had passed the test, compared to 48 percent of all students.

Despite the large numbers of immigrant children in our nation’s schools, this study and others demonstrate that school districts remain remarkably illequipped to address the needs of this population. From a policy standpoint, that inattention is partly a product of the United States’ lack of any sort of formal approach to immigrant integration. Yet, there are other models out there. One need only look to the Cuban experience to find an example for how to incorporate an immigrant group into U.S. society. Cubans were provided with preferential treatment in terms of immigration policy and the U.S. government invested an estimated $4 billion in their settlement and incorporation into the United States (García Bedolla, 2009). That investment has paid off handsomely; Cubans comprise the most successful Latino nationalorigin group in terms of income, educational levels, and overall socioeconomic status. If the U.S. government were willing to make similar investments in other immigrant populations, the economic, social, and political rewards would be large and significant.

Instead, popular discourse around immigrant integration has become increasingly ungenerous and vitriolic, as is reflected in the failure of the DREAM Act. Fundamentally, as a nation we have not come to accept that our immigrant population is part of the fabric of American society and will comprise a growing proportion of Americans, even absent continued immigration. Until the American community becomes committed to the education and integration of all its members, these stark inequalities will remain and possibly increase. As a result, educational equity in the United States will remain a dream deferred.


1. Their analysis includes former and current EL students because as EL students achieve English proficiency they are moved out of EL status. Including both groups allows for a more accurate comparison between ELL students and their English-only counterparts.


Bloemraad, I. (2006). Becoming a citizen: Incorporating immigrants and refugees in the United States and Canada. Berkeley: University of California Press.

García Bedolla, L. (2009). Latino politics. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

Rumberger, R. W., & Gándara, P. (2004). Seeking equity in the education of California’s English Learners. Teachers College Record, 106(10), 20322056.

Suárez Orozco, M., & Suárez Orozco, C. (2009). Educating Latino immigrant students in the twentyfirst century: Principles for the Obama Administration. Harvard Educational Review, 79(2), 327340.

Suárez Orozco, M., Suárez Orozco, C., & Todorova, I. (2008). Learning a new land: Immigrant students in American society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 25, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16310, Date Accessed: 5/20/2022 10:13:34 PM

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About the Author
  • Lisa García Bedolla
    University of California, Berkeley
    E-mail Author
    LISA GARCIA BEDOLLA is Associate Professor of Education at the University of California, Berkeley and Chair of Berkeley’s Center for Latino Policy Research. She received her Ph.D. in Political Science from Yale University and her B.A. in Latin American Studies and Comparative Literature from the University of California, Berkeley. She is author of Latino Politics (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2009) and Fluid Borders: Latino Power, Identity, and Politics in Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005) winner of the American Political Science Association’s Ralph Bunche Award. She is also co-author, with Melissa R. Michelson, of the forthcoming book, Mobilizing Inclusion: Redefining Citizenship through Get-Out-the-Vote Campaigns (New Haven: Yale University Press). Her research focuses on civic engagement, with a particular focus on the intersection of race, gender, nativity, and class.
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