Influx of Haitian refugees in Florida didn’t hurt student outcomes

Brookings Institution, David Figlio and Umut OzekThursday, March 1, 2018

TPS Photo, BrookingsMuch of the ongoing debate regarding immigration in the United States involves the question of whether immigrants from low-income countries – especially poor, less-educated immigrants from those countries – should be allowed to settle temporarily or permanently in the United States, and whether people who have migrated in the past should be permitted to remain. One of the flash points of this discussion involves the treatment of Haitian migrants who entered the United States following the devastating earthquake on January 12, 2010 that killed more than 200,000 people and affected a third of the population in Haiti. Haitians who entered the United States in the year following the earthquake have been granted Temporary Protected Status, which is slated to terminate on July 22, 2019. Critics of more liberal immigration policies claim that such migrants from low-income countries are “cast-offs” and impose significant burden on host communities. In contrast, proponents point to the entrepreneurship of recent immigrants, and argue that they represent the engine of future economic growth. However, these debates mostly take place in what is close to an empirical vacuum.

In a recent paper,[1] we present the first evidence, to the best of our knowledge, on the effects of a large influx of refugees or disaster-fleeing migrants on the educational outcomes of incumbent students. We focus specifically on the effects of those who entered the state of Florida – host to the majority of the Haitian disaster-fleeing migrants – in the wake of the 2010 earthquake. (While these migrants are not technically “refugees” in the sense of those fleeing political violence in Syria, for instance, Florida state agencies refer to them as “earthquake refugees,” and we use that language as shorthand in this essay). We make use of rich, longitudinal education microdata from Florida to study this question. These data are exceptionally detailed, allowing us to investigate the effects of Haitian refugees on a variety of incumbent students, including non-refugee Haitian immigrants, U.S.-born students of Haitian ancestry, other non-Haitian immigrant students, and so on. Over 4,000 refugee students entered Florida public schools by the end of the 2009-10 school year, and the overwhelming majority of these students enrolled in four school districts, generating a significant influx of refugee students in certain schools. Figure 1 presents the distribution of Haitian migrants entering Florida public schools during the spring semesters between 2003-04 and 2011-12 school years, illustrating the significant spike in the aftermath of the earthquake.

Haitian students Florida trending, Brookings

These new Haitian migrants were extremely low-scoring on state tests when they arrived in Florida. Among those who remained in Florida through at least spring 2012, Haitian earthquake refugees scored an average of 1.35 standard deviations below the state mean in reading and 0.98 standard deviations below the state mean in math in spring 2011, one year after the earthquake.[2] They began to catch up to others statewide over the next year: In spring 2012, Haitian earthquake refugees scored 0.98 standard deviations below the state mean in reading and 0.67 standard deviations below the state mean in math.

A number of studies have examined the effects of immigrants on the labor market outcomes of host communities,[3] and there have been several recent analyses of the effects of immigrants per se on the educational outcomes of incumbent students, though their conclusions have been mixed.[4] But the effects of refugees or other disaster-fleeing migrants might differ from the effects of immigrants on native communities due to the fundamental differences between these two groups in the manner in which they left their home countries. Immigrants typically make conscious choices to leave their countries of origin seeking “a better life” elsewhere. On the other hand, the term “refugee” refers to people who have to flee their countries due to an imminent threat to their lives such as armed conflicts, persecution, and/or natural disasters, and hence are more likely to be representative of, or even less advantaged and more marginalized than, the general population in their countries of origin. Refugees generally are more impoverished with lower earnings than economic migrants, and have lower levels of education and language skills when they arrive. Indeed, we observe in the Florida data that Haitian entrants following the earthquake were much poorer on average than Haitian entrants who arrived in Florida in prior years.

And while refugees ultimately—after a period of six to ten years —have higher labor force participation and employment rates, and have similar welfare participation rates, relative to U.S.-born residents, they often enter the U.S. with low human capital and language skills and have initially poor labor market outcomes and high rates of welfare usage.[5] Therefore, it is plausible to expect that refugees might have a very different (and likely more adverse) effect on incumbent students as school districts and schools shift resources away from native students to accommodate the needs of refugees.

The biggest challenge in revealing the causal effect of refugees on incumbent communities is that refugee students are not randomly assigned to schools and communities. In fact, prior research has shown that refugees, and recent immigrants in general, are more likely to settle in neighborhoods with larger shares of immigrants from their country of origin.[6] To deal with this selection issue, we make use of the within-school, across-grade variation in the volume of entering refugees to explore the effects on the educational outcomes of existing students including test scores, disciplinary incidents, and student mobility across schools. Put differently, we compare the outcomes of incumbent students in grades where relatively more Haitian earthquake refugees entered a school to those in grades in the same school where relatively few refugees entered the school. This way, we don’t have to worry about whether incumbent students in schools that attract more Haitian refugees are different from incumbent students in other schools – a possibility that could lead to misleading estimates of the effects of refugees if we compared incumbent student outcomes across schools. We also adopt empirical strategies to deal with the possibility that school administrators might strategically assign Haitian refugees to grades other than those predicted by their birth dates; we find little evidence to suggest that schools behaved strategically in this manner.

We find evidence that the effects of refugees on the educational outcomes of incumbent students in the year of the earthquake or in the two years that follow are either precisely estimated zero or very small positive, and we find no evidence of negative effects of refugees on incumbent students’ school outcomes.

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Categories Haiti News | Tags: | Posted on March 3, 2018

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