A kindergarten student listens to herself read during a class assignment at Spreckels Elementary school in University City on April 24, 2023.
A kindergarten student reads during a class assignment at Spreckels Elementary School on April 24, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

For a five-minute segment, Monday, KUSI’s anchor, Lauren Phinney brought on Mark Powell, a former member of the San Diego County Board of Education, to discuss the impact a looming immigration surge would have on San Diego schools.  

“As a result of the expiration of Title 42, thousands of migrants have illegally entered the United States. Some of these migrants are children, and will be enrolled in our public schools,” the post on the station’s website reads.  

“This expected enrollment increase will put pressure on resources, including classroom space, teaching staff, and educational materials. To make matters worse, there is already a teacher shortage …”  

The message was that when several thousand migrants enroll their children in San Diego schools, it will be a burden to our education system and have a negative impact, as the station Tweeted Monday. 

This conversation struck a chord with me because I was once an immigrant child enrolled in public schools. It also stood out, because it was wrong about the situation at the border and at our schools. 

First, about the border and surge: When the government invoked Title 42 during the pandemic, it gave immigration officials the authority to turn away migrants seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. That was different than before, when migrants could cross illegally and wait in the United States while the immigration court system processed their asylum requests.   

Two weeks ago, when the pandemic era policy ended, we did not see massive migrant crossings at the San Diego-Tijuana border as many predicted. The Biden administration put a series of new restrictive policies in place to curb illegal crossings. The new rules make it so that anyone who tries to cross without securing an appointment through the mobile app CBP One is ineligible for asylum.   

The hundreds of families and individuals who waited for immigration officials to process them in an area between two border fences and around rural areas of the county, crossed before Biden’s new rules changed the asylum-seeking process.  

More families are still struggling to navigate the complex asylum-seeking system at ports of entry, and as the Union-Tribune reported over the weekend, some are being denied entry. 

Asylum seekers can be seen through the border wall in San Ysidro on May 11, 2023.
Asylum seekers can be seen through the border wall in San Ysidro on May 11, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

But as immigration courts process asylum requests, some families will travel to other states to be with sponsors or family members. And yes, some could stay in San Diego. 

It’s not at all clear how many, if any, families will stay here and send kids to local schools and KUSI didn’t present any data of their own.  

So, back to the segment: Phinney said, “This is something obviously our school districts in California have dealt with, with the increasing numbers, but given the situation at the border we are going to continue to see some impacts obviously because they are welcome in public schools and there are ripple effects of it regardless of what you’re feelings are of the situation. And we are dealing with a significant teacher shortage in California, up to 10,000 vacancies.”  

Powell responded that the greatest impact would be in the classrooms. He said schools are already having a difficult time getting students to meet standards, but adding students who don’t speak English will impact classes and teachers.  

He’s right that schools are struggling.  

Educational inequities have plagued our schools for years. We’ve studied achievement gaps, chronic absenteeism and discrepancies in access to opportunities closely tied to poverty. Inequality is a real crisis. 

And he’s right that if migrants enroll their children, those students likely won’t speak English.  

About a quarter of San Diego Unified’s current students are English learners – the majority of whom are Spanish speakers. That number doesn’t grow, however, because English learners graduate into English speakers. 

Students who are reclassified oftentimes excel in school, as we’ve reported.  

‘They are coming across’ 

During the segment, Powell said, “… when we have an influx of more students — and who knows how many we are gonna get — there’s millions crossing the border. I tried to do some research on it, and no one really knows what the numbers are, but we’ve seen the pictures of parents coming across with their kids.”  

He’s right here, as well, no one really knows, especially not him.  

He offered no data and San Diego Unified Board Member Richard Barrera said there’s no information to suggest that an influx like that is on the horizon for the district. When immigrants cross into San Diego from Mexico they relocate to other cities where they have family and support. 

Barrera said the district hasn’t developed a plan aimed specifically at a potential influx of students but said its past experiences – like the recent surge of Afghan migrants – gives them a blueprint for action.  

During that influx relocation agencies housed migrants in hotels and San Diego Unified enrolled students at nearby schools. The district also has longstanding relationships with the Mexican Consulate and the immigrant advocacy group Alliance SD that Barrera feels will be useful in the event of a surge. 

But even if the district does see a significant increase in immigrant students, Barrera doesn’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.  

Like public schools statewide and nationally, San Diego Unified has seen declining enrollment for at least a decade. There are nearly 18,000 fewer students in district schools than there were just 10 years ago.  

It’s a worrisome trend given how big a role enrollment numbers play in school funding, and one the district has hoped the creation of a new grade for four-year-old’s could help counter. A surge of new students could also help combat that trend.  

“We’re seeing kids and families who can’t afford to live in San Diego leave, and that’s creating declining enrollment in our district. And so, we welcome having kids come to be educated in our schools,” Barrera said. 

But beyond the practical elements of a response, Barrera said the rhetoric surrounding a hypothetical influx of migrant students is simply creating a sense of fear and panic. In his mind, it’s not being done out of genuine worry for schools, but to whip up anti-immigration sentiment. 

Powell went on to say that millions of people are coming across the border without money to pay for teachers.  

“This crisis that was initiated by the federal government is now trickling down to our local school districts and it’s up to the federal government to help us,” Powell said. “We need help here in San Diego. We need resources, we need money, we need to extend the school year, we need more teachers.”  

There’s no question that adding more students to schools would impact resources. There is a cost for the service – books, infrastructure, staffing all cost money. But I think the cost is worth it.  

Most who come to this country do so because they want to succeed and want a better life for their children. That’s what my parents wanted when they came here. They learned to navigate a complex school system and enrolled me in schools where I would succeed.  

And I did.  

Jakob McWhinney contributed to this report.  

Update: This post has been updated to clarify that relocation agencies housed migrants in hotels and San Diego Unified helped enroll the students.

Andrea Lopez-Villafaña, Managing Editor, Daily News Andrea oversees the production of daily news stories for Voice of San Diego. She...

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  1. The experts and data show that this is a great challenge and that it will negatively impact public schools. You wrote an article based on zero data alleging the exact opposite because it makes you feel good. Is this a blog? Wild.

      1. I understand that you’re triggered because you’re wrong and have no rebuttal, but I don’t read KUSI. I meant how the NIH, countless data driven non-profits, and school districts including SFUSD have shown negative outcomes for both migrants (who don’t graduate), local kids (who lose resources), and local communities (which pay for more teachers and resources that don’t benefit their own kids).

  2. The vast majority of families seeking asylum, served through the San Diego Rapid Response Network, do not stay in the county. They go to families and sponsors all over the U.S. and the organization helps them facilitate travel. That’s one good data point.

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