Social Justice

Unauthorized Immigrant Students in the United States: Educational Policies, Practices, and the Role of School Psychology

By Michael L. Sulkowski

Volume 46 Issue 1, pp. 1, 30

By Michael L. Sulkowski

Overlooking Ellis Island, the famous port of entry for millions of U.S. immigrants, is the Statue of Liberty, La Liberté éclairant le monde. Those who have the opportunity to visit Miss Liberty may find Emma Lazarus's famous poem, The New Colossus, engraved on a bronze plaque at her pedestal. The poem beckons immigrants to the United States and famously concludes with a welcoming message to all newcomers: “. . . give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free; the wretched refuse of your teeming shore; send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Miss Liberty's lamp has welcomed millions of immigrants to the United States. However, in light of recent executive orders against immigration as well as efforts to detain and deport millions of unauthorized immigrants, one might wonder whether Miss Liberty's lamp is dimming. It is important to note, however, that various forms of anti-immigrant sentiment, xenophobia, and unchecked nativism are not new to the American narrative. In fact, at different periods in history, most immigrant groups to the United States have been discriminated against, exploited, and ostracized by predominant members of society (Newman, 2013). It was actually less than a century ago that Congress passed an act to limit immigration of individuals from certain European regions because of their perceived subpar intellectual abilities, inferior work ethic, and danger to society, as well as for their potential “mongrelizing” of the “good old American stock” (Severo & Milford, 1989, p. 15). The immigrants in question in this regard were from Italy and Sicily. Thus, anti-immigrant sentiment is an atavistic phenomenon; yet, just because this is a recurring theme in U.S. history, in no way does this minimize the current injustices faced by immigrants.

Considering the former, it is fair to say that immigration has always been a socially, emotionally, and politically charged issue in the United States. As school psychologists and professional members of school communities, we are tasked with ensuring that all students have access to a free and appropriate education (FAPE), regardless of their skin color, gender, religion, native language, disability status, sexual orientation, country of origin, or immigration status (Sulkowski, 2016). With this in mind, this article aims to increase awareness of the plight of unauthorized students in the United States and to discuss ways that school psychologists can help this neglected and disenfranchised population of students.

Current Status of Unauthorized Immigration in the United States

An unauthorized immigrant refers to individuals without U.S. citizenship, individuals born outside of the United States, and individuals who have either entered the United States without inspection or have remained in the United States beyond their promised departure (Hoefer, Rytina, & Baker, 2010). About 5.3 million youth (approximately 10% of the 50.1 million U.S. student population) are classified as unauthorized or live with at least one parent who does not meet current U.S. citizen classification standards (U.S. Department of Education, 2015; Yoshikawa, Suárez-Orozco, & Gonzales, 2016). Of these youth, about 775,000 do not have citizenship, permanent-resident status, refugee status, or the ability to secure stable work, educational opportunities, or legal domicile. Therefore, a staggering number of students in the United States have unauthorized citizenship status, and most schools are impacted by this problem (Child Trends, 2013).

Reasons for immigrating to the United States have varied across different historical periods (Suárez-Orozco, 2001). However, some commonalities exist with contemporary U.S. immigration, and recent immigrants have been impacted by existing laws, policies, and practices. Currently, unauthorized individuals from Mexico are the largest demographic group, comprising about 50% of the total unauthorized population (Krogstad & Passel, 2015). These individuals often cross the U.S./Mexican border to pursue occupational opportunities, seek family reunification, or leave communities that are mired in violence and conflict. Additionally, a significant percentage of these individuals reside in the United States and become unauthorized when their visas expire or are not renewed (Hoefer et al., 2010).

Over the past decade, however, an increasing number of unauthorized youth have emigrated from Central American countries such as Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Many of these children and adolescents are emigrating to escape violence, being forced into gang membership, sexual slavery, human trafficking, and other adverse life experiences (Crea, Lopez, Taylor, & Underwood, 2017; Krishan Aggarwal et al., 2016). The number of unauthorized immigrant youth from Central America grew from 6,000 to 7,000 per year prior to 2011 to over 66,000 in 2014 according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service estimates (USICE, 2015). However, these rates have declined to about 35,000 in 2015 and have continued to decrease each year into the current time. Mostly, these reductions are related to bilateral agreements between the U.S. and Mexican governments to reduce immigration from conflict regions into North America (Chishti & Hipsman, 2016). It is important to note that these agreements violate extant United Nation policies, yet efforts to enforce these policies are limited (i.e., General Comment No. 6; U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, 2012).

Detainment, deportation, and removal practices. Deportation, or the forced removal of unauthorized immigrants from the United States, increased significantly during the Bush and Obama Administrations. From 2007 through 2014, between 319,000 and 435,000 unauthorized individuals were removed from the United States each year, and the majority of these individuals were not classified as criminal offenders. In fact, the number of noncriminal unauthorized immigrants who were removed surpassed the number of deported unauthorized immigrants with criminal records in every year since 2001, according to data provided by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (2014). Moreover, these data suggest that racial and cultural biases tend to influence deportation and detainment practices, particularly related to Latinx individuals. More specifically, 91% of individuals who were deported between 2004 and 2013 were Latinx, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. This is particularly concerning because these individuals comprise 73% of the total unauthorized U.S. immigrant population (U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 2014).

Harmful effects of anti-immigrant policy and practice. Deporting unauthorized immigrants deleteriously impacts an untold number of children, families, and communities. According to research, a significant percentage of deported individuals are parents, even though precise estimates are not available. However, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (2009), an estimated 100,000 parents of U.S.-born citizens were deported between 1998 and 2007. Furthermore, within the first six months of 2011, more than 46,000 parents of U.S.-born children were deported (U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 2012). Therefore, according to previous estimates, if 396,906 individuals were deported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in 2011, almost a quarter (22%) of deported individuals left children behind in the United States (Wessler, 2011). Essentially, existing deportation practices are prevalent and deleterious to many children and families.

Harmful effects of anti-immigrant policy and practice. The ways that anti-immigrant policies and practices impact students are varied. Some youth are directly hurt by parental loss, others because of fear of being personally victimized, and yet others because of cascading stressors, vulnerabilities, and risks associated with aggressive U.S. immigration policies and practices. Although it is not possible to quantify the overall magnitude of adversity experienced by children and families who are affected by the former, existing research does illustrate some commonalities. In general, youth impacted by current U.S. immigration policies experience higher rates of parental loss, greater disruptions in psychosocial functioning, increased risk for mental health problems, and more significant problems with academic underperformance when compared to their peers who have not been impacted by those policies and practices (Bean, Brown, & Bachmeier, 2015; Gonzales, 2010).

In a recent review, Yoshikawa et al. (2016) identify several factors that negatively impact the social–emotional functioning of youth from unauthorized families. Some of these include the polarizing political discourse that currently is targeting these youth for mass deportation, social ostracization, and even violence in some cases (Swanson & Maria Torres, 2016). It is of little surprise, then, that anecdotal reports indicate that unauthorized immigrant youth often feel like they are pariahs or outsiders while they live and attend school in the United States (Gonzales, Suárez-Orozco, & Dedios-Sanguineti, 2013). Thus, as unauthorized immigrant youth forge their unique identities, they must do so in a caustic political environment that is hostile to them, which adds additional developmental challenges beyond those that are usually faced by other groups of marginalized youth (Gonzales et al., 2013; Sulkowski, 2016).

In light of the adjustment and developmental challenges they face, it is also not surprising that youth from unauthorized families report low feelings of social belonging, high rates of stigmatization, distrust of authority figures and social institutions, and general feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, frustration, disorientation, and dread about the future (Gonzales, 2010; Gonzales et al., 2013; Yoshikawa et al., 2016). Furthermore, although additional research is needed to establish specific patterns of vulnerability, preliminary studies suggest that unauthorized youth are at risk for experiencing a range of internalizing and externalizing problems (Allen, Cisneros, & Tellez, 2015; Landale, Hardie, Oropsea, & Hillemeier, 2015).

Educational Policies and Practices That Can Assist Unauthorized Students and Families

As advocates for the well-being of all students, school psychologists can support several educational policies and practices that assist unauthorized children and families. These include helping to facilitate school enrollment and participation, students’ academic and emotional–behavioral success, family–school-community connections, and efforts toward citizenship. However, because of the complex issues faced by these children and families, the lack of government and community support they receive, and the current executive orders to deport and detain millions of unauthorized immigrants living in the United States, it is important for school psychologists to join hands with other professionals to support these students’ right to FAPE.

School enrollment and participation practices. Being enrolled and contributing to the school community is a crucial protective factor for unauthorized immigrant students (Sulkowski, 2017). However, in light of the current anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States, many unauthorized children and families fear that they will be identified and reported to ICE if they attend school (Wong & Valdivia, 2014). This is disheartening, especially because no current law or policy requires school personnel to ask, check, or report the immigration status of the students or families they serve to ICE or any other law enforcement agency (Sulkowski, 2017). Moreover, according to the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court case, Plyler v. Doe (457 U.S. 202), asking students questions about their immigration status may discourage them from enrolling in school, which would then interfere with their access to FAPE, and thus be in violation of federal law (Olivas, 2012). The ruling in this case essentially annulled a Texas state statute that aimed to deny funding for educating unauthorized immigrant students and was determined to violate students’ rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. Furthermore, this ruling also barred existing practices that prevented youth from unauthorized families from enrolling in K–12 public schools in Texas and in other states. Thus, according to case law, a precedent exists that actually discourages educators and school psychologists from inquiring about the immigration status of the students and families with whom they work.

Various forms of identification (e.g., immunization records, social security identification) usually are required to enroll in school, and unauthorized immigrant youth often are unable to produce these documents (Sulkowski, 2017). However, according to federal law, many unauthorized immigrant youth should still be granted immediate enrollment and educational access. The McKinney–Vento Act (McK-VA; 42 U.S.C. 11431 et seq.) was authorized by Congress in 1987, and it was recently reauthorized under the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA; Pub.L. 114–95). In brief, this act ensures that all highly mobile or unaccompanied K–12 students (i.e., youth who “lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence”) have equal access to FAPE. Thus, based on their living circumstance, many children from unauthorized families are eligible to receive services and protections under McK-VA, even though such supports are not often provided in K–12 school settings (Sulkowski, 2016).

Facilitating academic and emotional–behavioral success. In general, schools are trusted institutions, and research suggests that providing supportive mental health services in schools can reduce disparities in mental health service access among traditionally underserved populations (Cummings, Ponce, & Mays, 2010). Additionally, preliminary research suggests that utilization rates for emotional–behavioral services tend to be higher at school than in community health care settings because of reduced transportation and other logistical obstacles (Ginsburg, Becker, Newman-Kingery, & Nichols, 2008). Therefore, schools appear to be promising environments to support the academic and psychosocial needs of unauthorized students.

Although not intended for this purpose, the multitiered systems of support (MTSS) service-delivery framework can be used to support the educational and psychological needs of unauthorized students. The main idea behind the MTSS service-delivery framework is to provide triaged interventions and supports to students who display a range of academic, emotional, and behavioral problems. To date, according to prevailing models, the core MTSS components include the use of universal screening, early intervention service delivery, collaborative problem solving, progress monitoring, and the application of intervention services across different levels of intensity (Bradshaw, 2013; Fletcher & Vaughn, 2009). Moreover, many schools have adopted the MTSS framework as indicated by an early study that found that 90% of U.S. states were engaged in MTSS-related training implementation efforts (Hoover, Baca, Wexler-Love, & Saenz, 2008). For further review of the MTSS framework to address at-risk and vulnerable students, see Sulkowski and Michael (2014).

Family–school connections. Fostering effective family–school connections and partnerships among school personnel, families, community members, and community-based organizations involves working together to accomplish goals associated with increasing the academic, emotional, and social success of students (Mitchell & Bryan, 2007). Research suggests that such positive family–school connections can increase students’ educational success, make parents feel more empowered, and increase social capital for disenfranchised families (Henderson & Mapp, 2002). Furthermore, these partnerships have also been found to foster resilience and healthy psychosocial adjustment among immigrant students (Roffman, Suárez-Orozco, & Rhodes, 2003). Thus, although no studies could be located that directly investigated this phenomenon in unauthorized immigrant youth, fostering positive family–school connections likely are crucial to effective efforts to help these students.

Efforts toward citizenship. An increasing sense of urgency exists to provide paths toward citizenship for unauthorized immigrants in the United States. In response to this, legislators on both sides of the political spectrum have been met with the challenge of finding a way to reform current immigration policies and practices. Unfortunately, however, the majority of legislative efforts toward providing a legal path to citizenship have been forestalled in Congress, and comprehensive immigration reform seems to be distant possibility at this point. Yet, in 2012, the Obama administration was successful in advancing two policy efforts that pertain to unauthorized minors and parents of U.S. citizen children. These include the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA; Obama, 2014). Together, for about half of the unauthorized youth population living in the United States, DACA and DAPA provide short-term protections from detainment, deportation, and immediate removal as well as the provision of social security numbers, work permits, and improved access to higher education.

Since June 2012, approximately 700,000 DACA applications have been approved according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (2015). However, the expansion of DACA and DAPA has not happened because of several state-level lawsuits currently underway as well as legal decisions that negatively impact more than 4 million unauthorized immigrants. In June 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court reached a deadlocked decision on the expansion of DACA and DAPA, which then resulted in the maintenance of a ruling from a lower court that blocked the implementation of the program. Essentially, this decision froze legislative efforts to provide a legal pathway to citizenship as well as reduced protections from deportation for millions of individuals (Sulkowski, 2017).

Considering the former, it is important to note that DACA helps children and families, according to existent research. More specifically, reductions in fears associated with being deported have been reported following the attainment of DACA, and program participation is associated with greater participation in U.S. society (Wong & Valdivia, 2014). Additionally, DACA-participating individuals report a greater sense of national belonging (Teranishi, Suárez-Orozco, & Suárez-Orozco, 2015); overall civic engagement (Wong & Valdivia, 2014); and higher educational enrollment, aspirations, and participation (Teranishi et al., 2015). In light of the benefits associated with DACA, school psychologists can encourage the students with whom they work to apply for the programs as

soon as they are eligible. This is particularly important because a study by the Migration Policy Institute (2015) found that about 35% of DACA-eligible individuals do not apply for the program.

A Contemporary Role for School Psychology

Leading up to and following the 2016 U.S. presidential election, anti-immigrant rhetoric and discourse has intensified and unauthorized children and families are rightly alarmed (Philbin & Ayón, 2016; Wang, 2016). Additionally, despite legally mandated protections, some legislators have suggested using records from DACA-enrolled students as a way to identify unauthorized adults to deport (Preston & Medina, 2016). However, even prior to these suggestions, many DACA-eligible individuals had been worried that they or a family member were in jeopardy of being deported. In fact, a study by Teranishi et al. (2015) indicates that about 90% of DACA-enrolled undergraduate students (N=909) reported worrying that a family member of theirs could be deported.

As advocates, the onus is on school psychologists to resist discriminatory, racist, xenophobic, and bigoted practices and policies that deleteriously impact any particular group of students, regardless of their immigration status. In support of this notion, NASP recently released its 2017 Public Policy and Legislative Platform that explicitly states that school psychologists should be

… committed to ensuring that all students—whatever their race, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, gender (including identification and expression), sexual orientation, disability status, language proficiency, or immigration status—receive a high-quality public education in a positive, safe, supportive, and inclusive educational environment that is free of bullying, harassment, discrimination, and violence and promotes student learning. (Vaillancourt Strobach, 2017)

Moreover, the NASP Principles for Professional Ethics (2010) code requires school psychologists to:

… consider the interests and rights of children and youth to be their highest priority in decision making, and act as advocates for all students. These assumptions necessitate that school psychologists “speak up” for the needs and rights of students even when it may be difficult to do so. (p. 2)

Therefore, ethical school psychologists can be important allies to unauthorized children and families. Similarly, according to the Plyler v. Doe decision, in no way are school psychologists obligated to ask about the immigration status of the students with whom they work, regardless of any executive order or district policy (457 U.S. 202), and consistent with the McK-VA, school psychologists should work with educational professionals to ensure that unauthorized students have access to a FAPE and receive the protections associated with attending a public K–12 school (Sulkowski, 2017).


Largely because of policy changes, the number of unauthorized children and families in the United States is approaching a record high. Current estimates indicate that more than 5 million youth in the United States are unauthorized immigrants or live in unauthorized families, and that these students are distributed across the country. Moreover, because of current U.S. immigration policies and practices, these young people are at risk of losing a parent or primary guardian to deportation and of experiencing serious disruptions in their academic and psychosocial functioning. However, as members of institutions with a mission to support the FAPE of all students, school psychologists can be important allies who help and support unauthorized children and families. Moreover, as ethical practitioners, school psychologists have an important opportunity to advocate for these students regardless of policies and practices that may unjustly target them or their family members.


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Michael L. Sulkowski, PhD, NCSP, is an associate professor in the school psychology program and a clinical associate professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Arizona. Dr. Sulkowski also is the chair of the NASP Early Career Committee and a contributing editor for Communiqué.

© 2017, National Association of School Psychologists
September 2017, Volume 46, Number 1