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National Opinion

Made in America: COVID-19 and the United States’ Immigrant Students

“We’re different in a good way,” sings Gabriella Montez (Vanessa Hudgens) in “We’re All in This Together,” a song from the 2006 film High School Musical. It’s a principle America has often struggled to appreciate, and a message that Caio Gomes embodies. 

Growing up in Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil, Gomes’ image of the United States was shaped by the glamour of teen flicks like High School Musical. As a child, he dreamed of having a locker—uncommon in Brazilian schools—and of having an American high school experience defined by cheerleaders, pomp, and circumstance. As a student in the Class of 2020 at Pittsburgh Milliones 6-12 in Pittsburgh, PA, he came pretty close to that ideal.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly altered the course of his senior year, Gomes was elected to a second term on Pittsburgh Public Schools’ Superintendent’s Advisory Council, voted Homecoming King, and conferred with de facto valedictorian status (an accomplishment he’s preserved). Perhaps because of that success, he’s taken a relatively relaxed attitude to the pandemic cutting his year short. “It’s really sad not to have a [physical] graduation,” he told The Politic, especially since he’s the first in his family to graduate from a U.S. high school. On the whole, though, COVID-19 hasn’t changed his life plan: go to college, go to law school, work as an attorney, get married, settle down, have kids. 

That’s not to say that the pandemic hasn’t been a big deal, despite Gomes’ equanimity. Heading into the pandemic, he had been accepted into two of Pennsylvania’s flagship universities, the University of Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania State University, and a number of other colleges. He was waitlisted for his first choice schools—Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh, and Swarthmore College, in Swarthmore, PA. But concerns over COVID-19’s impact on Brazil, which now has the world’s second-highest death toll from the disease, forced him to select a college more quickly than he had anticipated.

“My family and I had to change plans to get a lot of money to bring the members of my family who are still [in Brazil],” explained Gomes, “and for that reason, I had to choose going to a cheaper college, instead of going to a more expensive one…. I didn’t have time to give a lot of thought [to the decision].” 

Even so, he doesn’t regret choosing Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where he’ll head in the fall. His grandparents, whom Gomes and his mother are trying to bring over from Brazil, are vulnerable to the SARS-CoV-2 virus due to age and preexisting conditions. To him, the choice was ultimately a simple one. “It is for a good cause,” he declared in his interview.

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In the midst of the pandemic, America has found a soft spot in its heart for members of the high school Class of 2020. They’ve been gifted star-studded television programs, even more star-studded commencement speeches, and a plethora of yard signs. Underlying the festivities, though, is an unwritten understanding that this year has been tough and that the future will be tougher. That holds particularly true for the nearly a quarter of U.S. public school students who come from households with at least one immigrant parent, whether they’re graduating now or in the years to come.

For many such students, adapting to the American education system can be a challenge under normal circumstances. Manow Jaithiang, a rising sophomore at Deer Lakes School District in Allegheny County, PA, immigrated from Thailand to the U.S. in December 2012 with almost no English-language proficiency.

“I was assigned an English as [a] Second Language teacher to help me throughout the years in school. It was very difficult and scary to actually learn a brand new language at the age of six,” Jaithiang said in a text correspondence with The Politic.

Jaithiang wasn’t alone in her experience—Gomes spoke mostly Spanish and Portuguese for years after arriving in the U.S. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that between first- and second-generation students (those born in the U.S. to immigrant parents), five million public school students—10.1 percent of the total public school population—are English Language Learners (ELLs). The language barrier creates numerous obstacles to learning. As a result, ELLs are more likely to be chronically absent and face emotional and mental health issues than their peers. Since 25 percent of first-generation children in the U.S. and 22 percent of second-generation children live below the poverty line, the language issues they face are frequently compounded by other systemic barriers to opportunity.

In the past few months, COVID-19 has made those barriers far stronger. Instruction time has been halved, on average, across the U.S. Students are spending far fewer hours—especially in low-income areas—engaging with their teachers, doing schoolwork, or learning new things. The students most negatively affected by these changes are the students who were already struggling before the pandemic, whether due to poverty, inequality, language barriers, or a mixture of the three. 

In Sacramento, CA, the language gap has been a major obstacle to bringing hundreds of Spanish, Farsi, and Marshallese-speaking students back into the school system since the city’s school district closed its (physical) doors in March. Los Angeles, CA, where roughly 60 percent of children come from immigrant households, had 15,000 of its high school students completely out of contact with the Los Angeles Unified School District on Monday, March 30, two weeks after moving online. In Pittsburgh, Gomes didn’t even start online learning until Thursday, April 16, a full month after the majority-minority city school district shut schools down. Across the country, students already at a disadvantage—students who are too often first- or second-generation immigrants—are on the verge of being completely left behind as learning has moved online.

“Unless we get serious about flattening the learning loss curve,… too many students could go into academic death spirals,” said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, in remarks delivered to the House Education and Labor Committee on May 7. There is a real danger that the pandemic could result in crippling learning loss for a generation of students, especially immigrant students.

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Even in the face of that litany of obstacles, it might be tempting to ask why we should put a particular emphasis on the challenges facing immigrant or ELL students. They make up only a fraction of overall public school enrollment, after all, and are concentrated mostly in large cities and the nation’s liminal spaces. Plenty of other students are dealing with similar problems. 

There’s absolutely no denying that many groups have faced greater educational roadblocks due to the pandemic. There’s also no denying that if our children are our future, our future is increasingly reliant on how we educate immigrants and ELLs. Even amidst the tumult of the pandemic, small headlines were made in early May when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report on birth rates for 2019. A key line in the report was that “the total fertility rate was 1,705.00 births per 1,000 women in 2019,…[a] record low for the nation.” The U.S. birth rate has declined almost every year since the Great Recession, a trend that is likely to be exacerbated by the economic and social impact of COVID-19. With overall fertility now significantly below the 2.1 children per woman required for natural replenishment of the U.S. population, the trajectory of the country will be determined in larger and larger part by those who choose it, rather than those who are born into it.

Gomes knows this well. His initial landing spot in the U.S. wasn’t Pittsburgh, but Incline Village, NV, where he arrived at the age of nine. The four years he spent there were a mixture of multiculturalism and ingrained racism, of immigrant vitality and an aging America. “Most of the kids there were immigrants from Mexico,” Gomes said, “and the only Americans around were extremely old [white people].” Gomes spoke Spanish, his second language, with the largely Mexican student body at his tiny primary school, and remembers being particularly in touch with his “Latinx side” as a result of the connections he forged. 

“On the other hand,” Gomes noted, “there was a lot of racism going around,” much of it emerging from the economic, social, and cultural disparities between the town’s elderly, wealthy, white majority and its growing Latinx population. “It wouldn’t be rare for me to be called, like, a ‘wetback,’ for example,” Gomes said, and for certain townspeople to look at him “like trash.” The butting of heads between two persistent strains in American culture that Gomes witnessed in Incline Village marked it as one of thousands of crucibles where America’s future is being forged. As the population inclined to use slurs against Gomes fades away, the village’s demographics are a clear sign that the America of tomorrow is one that will depend on how much immigrant students know, and how prepared they are to achieve their American dreams.

In Gomes’ case, both he and the nation have been lucky. The years he’s spent here have made him a fluent English speaker, and he’s evaded common pitfalls faced by immigrant students. Despite some challenges, he’s headed to college, and he’s remained steadfast in planning to work as an immigration lawyer—paying it forward, in a fashion. His story is a classic American success, a textbook example of what’s possible when the country does right by its immigrant, and how it benefits in turn. The challenge the U.S. faces now is ensuring that COVID-19 doesn’t stop a generation of his peers from following in his footsteps. The nation’s future hangs in the balance. For better or for worse, we’re all in this together.

(Photo Courtesy of Caio Gomes)