How asylum seekers will impact the public school system (July update)

With yesterday's June border statistics from Customs and Border Protection, we can update our forecasts for the impact of asylum seekers on the US public school system.

The asylum surge of the last year is fundamentally different than more typical illegal immigration of the prior forty years. Whereas illegal immigration historically arose from single men crossing the border undetected, today entire migrant families are showing up to turn themselves in to Border Patrol. As a result, the share of children coming across the border illegally has soared. The available data suggests that 70-75% of these children are being released into the US interior, and we assume that 75% of those will end up in the public school system.

Migrants are currently entering primarily in Texas and other states bordering Mexico. Nevertheless, over time, these in-coming populations will diffuse to other parts of the country as migrant parents search for work. We believe the default option will be to go to communities where undocumented migrants are already present in large numbers, in part because friends and family are most likely to reside there and because migrant support networks are best developed in these areas. Therefore, the regions most likely to receive large numbers of asylum seekers are those with the largest unauthorized Hispanic populations. This may prove not entirely true, but for modeling purposes, probably represents a reasonable default outcome.

According to Pew Research, more than 60% of unauthorized Hispanics are concentrated in just seven states, in order: California (20.6%), Texas (15%), Florida (7.2%), New York (6.8%), New Jersey (4.4%), and Georgia and Illinois (3.7% each). We forecast that a bit less than 200,000 unaccompanied minors and children in family groups will be released into the US interior between Jan. 1 and the end of August, that is, just before the start of the school year. Assuming they are placed into school during the fall, this would represent 140,000 additional students, almost entirely in public schools.

Source: Princeton Policy estimates based on Customs and Border Protection statistics

Source: Princeton Policy estimates based on Customs and Border Protection statistics

If migrant students were allocated pro rata by the undocumented population, they would be distributed per the chart to the right.

For the 2019/2020 school year, the numbers are notable, but not catastrophic, about 0.5% of the currently enrolled student body. If, however, asylum seeking continues at its recent pace (largely unknowable at this point), then the numbers for the 2020/2021 school year -- just before the next presidential election -- would be a major political issue. It should also be noted that this is a slow-moving event. That is, Texas is being hammered now, but over a 3-9 month period, the migrant dispersion will continue, such that concentrations in, say, New Jersey would likely keep rising right through next spring even if the surge ended today. Closing the border does not make this problem immediately go away in key states, most notably Florida.

Indeed, the situation in Florida has already come to the attention of the New York Times, which on July 10th published a front page article entitled Schools Scramble to Handle Thousands of New Migrant Families. Below are a few excerpts to give a feel for what is to come.

Dayvin Mungia, 7, arrived from El Salvador at South Grade Elementary in South Florida last year with, it seemed, no schooling at all. “He didn’t even recognize the first letter of his name,” said Nicol Sakellarios, his second-grade teacher, as the smiling boy gamely stumbled through his ABC’s in summer school not long ago. “Good job, my love,” she said, prodding him on as he faltered again and again.

Laura Martin, 16, who attended school for only three years in Guatemala and speaks an indigenous language, plans to enroll in high school in Florida next month. “Illiterate” and “0” were scrawled on a math worksheet that she tried and failed to complete after she made her way across the border in May.

Migrant children arriving in record numbers are creating challenges for school districts across the country. Many of the newcomers have disjointed or little schooling; their parents, often with limited reading and writing skills themselves and no familiarity with the American education system, are unable to help.

Schools in places like Lake Worth, a city near President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort that has become a favorite destination for Guatemalans, are scrambling to hire new staff and add summer sessions to support the newcomers.

Last year, the Palm Beach County school district enrolled 4,555 Guatemalan students in K through 12, nearly 50 percent more than two years earlier. Many of the students come from the country’s remote highlands and speak neither Spanish nor English. The number of elementary school students in K through 5 more than doubled to 2,119 in that same period.

Ana Arce-Gonzalez, the principal at South Grade Elementary School in the heart of Lake Worth’s immigrant enclave, said that in 25 years as an educator she had never experienced anything like it. The school saw its enrollment rise from 820 at the beginning of the last school year to 910 in the spring, pushing it over capacity.

“It speaks to what is happening at the border,” she said.

And this is only the tip of the spear. The worst is yet to come.