How Do Immigration Enforcement Laws and Actions Affect Children in the Classroom?

Using sensitive data, in new work published in the Journal of Human Resources, Benjamin Meadows examined how documented immigrants versus undocumented immigrants respond to immigration enforcement events—specifically the actions taken by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the passage of a state immigration law, and the subsequent legal challenges to this immigration law.

By contrasting daily public school attendance and school withdrawal patterns among undocumented Hispanic, documented Hispanic, and white students, Meadows was able to chart out the effects of these events. He finds that undocumented Hispanic students are highly responsive to the rollout of a state immigration-enforcement law, with large spikes in absenteeism on days when the law overcame court challenges. In addition to absenteeism, increased withdrawals from school immediately followed the law clearing federal court.

Importantly, from a policy perspective, these effects are not seen in undocumented students alone. Documented Hispanic students are also absent on these consequential days for the state immigration law. Importantly a large number of documented Hispanic students withdraw from school completely. These legal changes seem to have an effect beyond Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) operations in the local area, as Meadows find no correlations between ICE enforcement and absenteeism.

How can this research inform policy? Meadows: “This study sheds light not only on the implications and consequences of immigration enforcement legislation (or the mere possibility of it) but also increases our knowledge of undocumented immigrants themselves. Additionally, this research expands our understanding of the important ways risk salience affects the education investments families make for their children. Overall, it yields a richer understanding of the tradeoffs that face policymakers, and the impacts that such changes may have on future generations.”

Read the study in the Journal of Human Resources: “Undocumented and Under Threat of Deportation: Immigrant Students in the Classroom,” by Benjamin Meadows.

Benjamin Meadows is an assistant professor of economics at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.