Education is a basic human right, enshrined in the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child and the 1951 Refugee Convention. According to UNHCR, “education protects refugee children and youth from forced recruitment into armed groups, child labor, sexual exploitation and child marriage.” It also strengthens community resilience and empowers refugees by giving them the knowledge and skills to live independent lives while rebuilding their lives and communities. In the United States, the Supreme Court noted in Brown v. Board of Education that “it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he [or she] is denied the opportunity of an education.”
Despite this agreed-upon importance of education, especially for refugee and asylum seeking children, the 2022 UNHCR Refugee Education Report indicates that, across the globe, educational opportunities for refugee children are restricted. In fact, refugee children are 5 times more likely to be out of school than other children. Fortunately, thanks to the decision made in the 1982 Supreme Court case Plyler v. Doe and the more recent Dear Colleague Letter, undocumented children and young adults in the United States have the same right to attend public primary and secondary schools as do U.S. citizens and permanent residents. School districts are required to provide all children with equal access to public education regardless of their or their parents’ citizenship or immigration status.
The right to education, however, is not synonymous with the ease of access to education. Asylum-seeking families often face barriers to enrolling their children in school, including language barriers and difficulties related to processes and documents. Additionally, asylum-seeking students face barriers in succeeding in school as well as accessing higher education.
Language Barriers During School Enrollment
The U.S. Departments of Justice and Education mandate that “schools must communicate information to limited English proficient parents in a language they can understand about any program, service, or activity that is called to the attention of parents who are proficient in English.” This means that school districts must provide translated materials or a language interpreter for free from school staff or outside translators trained in translation and interpretation.
Schools in the Birmingham area do follow this mandate, however, in the experience of several ALIRP Partners, the schools either asked a bilingual teacher to help translate or utilized a telephone-based interpreter as they did not have a trained interpreter on staff. Although this is still helpful, bilingual teachers or staff members are not necessarily trained interpreters or translators and do not have knowledge of the ethics of the interpreter role, including the need to maintain confidentiality. Telephone-based interpreters are also not able to physically go through the enrollment documents alongside the parents, allowing for persisting confusion throughout the process.
Difficulties with Processes and Documents
“It was really easy to enroll the kids in school in Mexico. But here, you need so many things. It’s difficult if you don’t know what you need, and we had to jump through a lot of hoops and ask a lot of people for help,” expressed *Ana, an ALIRP Partner and mother of two.
To enroll a child in Birmingham City Schools, the parent must submit the following documents to the school:
Many asylum seekers do not have the complete set of documents required to enroll their children in school for a number of reasons. Not all asylum-seeking children have birth certificates; UNICEF estimates that “237 million children under age 5 worldwide currently do not have a birth certificate.” Additionally, asylum-seeking children do not have the accepted form of immunization certificate upon arrival to the U.S.; Alabama only accepts the state’s own immunization record, and those who have out-of-state records must go to the health department to have their records copied to Alabama’s system. Many asylum seekers do not have photo IDs, and even fewer have withdrawal papers from their home countries’ school districts.
There are exceptions to some of these required documents: According to a Dear Colleague Letter, “a school district may not bar a student from enrolling in its schools because he or she lacks a birth certificate or…chooses not to provide a social security number.” Although this workaround does often benefit asylum seekers attempting to enroll in school, it does not remove the confusion and difficulty that the list of required documents causes for those who have few or none of them.
Barriers to Success in School
Once asylum-seeking students finally make it through the enrollment process and find themselves in the classroom, they often face barriers to educational success including language barriers and lack of access to educational resources. Most asylum-seeking students do not speak English, which is typically the only language spoken in U.S. schools aside from foreign language and ESL (English as a Second Language) classes. ESL classes can be a huge help for students who do not speak English, that is, if their schools have them. The Equal Educational Opportunities Act mandates that, under civil rights law, public schools are obligated to provide students with an equal educational opportunity regardless of race, color, sex, or national origin, and that educational agencies must “take appropriate action to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation by its students in its instructional programs.” Despite this mandate, many schools (including some in Birmingham) have momentarily paused the offering of ESL classes due to teacher shortages.
In addition to language barriers, asylum-seeking students also run into barriers when they do not have access to necessary and required educational tools such as computers, tablets, and internet access. In 2020, the United Nations estimated that 1.3 billion school-aged children could not log onto the internet at home. With a large quantity of school work requiring internet access and virtual learning tools – especially after the pandemic – the lack of access to the internet prevents students from participating in the classroom and achieving the same level of education as their internet- and technology-equipped peers.
Inaccessibility of Higher Education
In 2011, the Alabama legislature passed the Beason-Hammon Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act (known as HB-56) which prohibits undocumented students from enrolling in Alabama’s public colleges and universities and from receiving certain educational benefits like in-state tuition, scholarships, grants, or financial aid. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and a coalition of civil rights groups filed a Class Action lawsuit challenging the law as unconstitutional. In 2013, a settlement agreement blocked many parts of the law, however some many parts, including those related to access to higher education, remain in place. Technically, undocumented students in Alabama could still be eligible to attend private colleges and universities, but these institutions often have much lower acceptance rates and much higher tuitions than their public counterparts. Prohibiting undocumented students from attending public colleges and universities not only creates a dead end for their educational pursuits, but also significantly harms their potential for achieving upward mobility for themselves and their families.
Breaking Down the Barriers
“School enrollment was easy for us, thanks to ALIRP. You helped us fill out the paperwork, communicate with the school, and solve the issues we were having,” said *Selena, an ALIRP Partner and mother of four. “My son even wanted to drop out of school because it was so difficult, but you all convinced him to stay and helped him finish his classes. He ended up graduating with honors.”
ALIRP works to assist our Partners in overcoming the barriers associated with enrolling in and succeeding at school in various ways, including:
Seeking asylum in the U.S. is no easy feat, and those who take on the challenge show strength, bravery, and determination every step of the way. Show that you stand with asylum seekers in Birmingham and across the globe by joining ALIRP in our efforts to support them. To do so, consider volunteering your time, making a financial contribution, or sharing this article with a friend. Every action to remove barriers while seeking asylum is necessary, and we hope you will take action today.
*All names have been changed to protect the identities of our Partners.