Immigration, Segregation, and Education

By John Wahala on March 17, 2016

One of the more controversial initiatives enacted by the Obama administration is the effort now underway to aggressively reduce segregation in residential neighborhoods across the country. Officials at the Department of Housing and Urban Development are collecting and sharing extensive amounts of data with local officials to devise policies to better integrate communities. Localities that do not cooperate are being coerced in various ways, including the withholding of federal funds.

Administration officials claim that the initiative is merely an extension of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, while Republicans in Congress argue it is ill-conceived social engineering and an illegal use of executive power. Whether one supports the initiative or not, two things are certain: research shows that integration does foster better socioeconomic outcomes and the administration is ignoring the main driver of segregation — mass immigration.

Consider the case of public schools. An article from the winter 2015 issue of International Migration Review finds that the average test scores in both reading and math for first- and second-generation youth declined significantly from 1990 to 2002. In that time, children from immigrant families grew from 13 to 20 percent of all public school students and the immigrant population became less diverse due to the dramatic increase of Hispanic newcomers.

The authors find that these changing demographics, the rise in single-parent families, and economic hardship all contributed to the decline in test scores and that these factors "are compounded by the economic and racial isolation of the schools some children of immigrants attend."

They warn, "In an era of both record high immigration flows and school re-segregation levels, there is significant concern that schools will be able to successfully foster the academic adaptation of immigrant children. Creating a triple disadvantage for many children of immigrants, U.S. schools have re-segregated across racial/ethnic, linguistic, and economic divisions."

Mass immigration has intensified segregation. As Gary Orfield and Chungmei Lee explain in a 2005 paper for Harvard's Civil Rights Project, "Immigration has transformed American schools as the number of black students grew slowly, the number of Latinos and Asian students exploded, and white enrollment continuously declined as a proportion of the total." Accompanying this transformation is "a continuous pattern of deepening segregation for black and Latino students now since the 1980s."

Orfield and Lee found that more than three-quarters of Hispanic students attend majority-minority schools. Nearly 40 percent of Hispanics attend schools that are 90-100 percent minority. These schools are defined by less stable and qualified teachers, poor English-speaking ability, low achievement, high dropout rates, and widespread, oftentimes extreme, poverty. They claim that half of all black and Hispanic students are dropping out of high school.

A host of studies conducted over the years conclude that minority students do better in diverse environments. Orfield and Lee cite dozens of them, including the seminal 1966 Coleman Report, which was the first national study on desegregated education. It "found peer influence to be stronger than any other factor other than family background". When first- and second-generation students attend more integrated schools they develop friendships and networks that encourage them to succeed and become part of the American national identity.

The benefits of integration, not only in schools but in communities, are the ostensible reason for the aggressive new federal initiative. As the New York Times explained, the program "builds on recent academic research documenting that lower-income children have much better prospects if they live in diverse neighborhoods." Margery Turner of the Urban Institute summarized the impetus for the program: "Segregation is clearly a problem that is blocking upward mobility for children growing up today."

Despite segregation's harmful effects, there is a longstanding refusal to discuss limits on immigration. Politicians will not even acknowledge the overall level of immigration (many of them do not know what it is). Academics do not hesitate to detail the transformative nature of federal immigration policy — oftentimes in dire, even cataclysmic tones — but they never recommend restrictions. Instead they suggest heavy-handed state intervention to cope with the problems it has created or offer vague policy prescriptions intended to mitigate its impacts.

For example, Orfield and Lee conclude, "Basic research should be supported on the impacts of Latino segregation and of multiracial schools and school reforms should be designed and evaluated in light of deepened understanding of rapidly changing realities."

There are now 61 million immigrants and their young children living in the United States. Since 1970, the population has grown by 353 percent. This growth has been far more dramatic in some states. For example, in Georgia and Nevada, the population grew by more than 3,000 percent. With this level of immigration, there will be increasing segregation in schools and communities. No matter how aggressive the administration's tactics become, they will just be a band aid on the problem.