The border crisis reaches Utah schools, says Rep. Burgess Owens

Utah Rep. Burgess Owens talks at an event about regulatory reform at Zions Bank's head office in Salt Lake City on Thursday. Owens said the overwhelming number of migrants entering the U.S. through the southern border is taking a toll on the country.

Utah Rep. Burgess Owens talks at an event about regulatory reform at Zions Bank's head office in Salt Lake City on Thursday. Owens said the overwhelming number of migrants entering the U.S. through the southern border is taking a toll on the country. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Rep. Burgess Owens said the high number of migrants entering the U.S. through the southern border is affecting the entire country, including Utah.

During a Tuesday hearing for the Education and Workforce Subcommittee on the consequences of the border crisis on educational institutions, Owens, who represents Utah's 4th District, highlighted the challenge of accommodating tens of thousands of migrant students. Not only are taxpayers left to foot the bill, but their children are also left to grapple with shrinking programs and resources, Republicans on the committee said. But what is the solution when migrant children have a federal right to public schooling?

Since President Joe Biden took office, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection has encountered as many as 8.1 million migrants. After crossing the border, these individuals have made their way to states all across the U.S.

Mari Barke, a trustee of the Orange County Board of Education, said that when the public education system is strained, the services that are cut down are in the "most disadvantaged" schools with the "most vulnerable children."

The Utah congressman stated a concern for the newly enrolled migrant students: "They're unable to assimilate. (They're) unable to speak the language to understand what the American culture is all about." These children are more vulnerable to being indoctrinated into criminal gangs or face abuse, said Owens, before blaming the Biden administration for being careless.

During the hearing, he asked witness Danyela Egorov, the vice president of a community education council in New York City and an immigrant mother, whether states are experiencing a shortage of English teachers for foreign language-speaking students.

"That's one of the biggest problems is that there are 26 states now that have the shortage as documented by the report by the Department of Education," Egorov responded. "This is not just teachers who speak Spanish because there are children from every single country coming, and so it's just very hard to plan and then to be able to serve adequately."

Owens cited the Education Recovery Scorecard project that compiled data to find how many years of schooling students across districts have lost because of the pandemic. In a Virginia district with 4,000 students, Owens recalled, the average loss of learning was more than two years. A majority of students in this district are low-income, and 60% are Black, according to The Associated Press. Owens asked Egorov if she thinks a new wave is influencing schools to lower the educational achievement bar.

Egorov said she did see this change. "As a mother, I can't believe what they are asking me to do," said Egorov. "They said that what third graders, for example, could do a few years ago, it's not what third graders now can do."

"No parent will accept that, and what New York is doing is trying to hide the learning loss from closing schools for so long for masking mandates, from COVID vaccine mandates that prevented children and parents from going into our school buildings," she said.

Owens directed the next question at Sheena Rodriguez, the president of Alliance for a Safe Texas, a nonprofit that educates citizens about the consequences of open borders. He asked if she sees the public school system as the surging hotbed of "criminal activity, recruitment exploitation and deaths." He cited reports of an incident from February when a 26-year-old Guatemalan national was arrested for the rape of a child.

"That's one of the most egregious things is that (schools aren't) safe for the children, for the students for the staff or the communities," said Rodriguez. "We're failing the future of our country. We're failing on every level." Ultimately, Owens said Biden's education department needs to be held accountable for not protecting the most vulnerable students.

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., the hearing's ranking member, pointed to a 1982 Supreme Court decision that ruled undocumented students cannot be denied a free public education.

She also acknowledged the Center for Law and Social Policy's suggestion for the committee "to reject xenophobic and sensationalized claims that newcomer students are harming U.S. schools, and instead focus on securing resources our schools need to adequately serve all students."

"I don't want this hearing to be an attack on migrants in our communities. Hearings and words that are used and have consequences and put students in harm's way, which is especially concerning when research shows that migrant students often face disproportionate risk of bullying and harassment," Bonamici said. She acknowledged that the situation at the border is a real challenge, but fixing the immigration process is the key to solving the problem.

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Utah K-12 educationUtah congressional delegationUtahPoliticsEducationSalt Lake County
Gitanjali Poonia
Gitanjali Poonia is an early career journalist who writes about politics, culture and climate change. Driven by her upbringing in New Delhi, India, she takes pride in reporting on underserved and under-covered communities. She holds a bachelor’s in electronic media from San Francisco State University and a master’s in journalism from Columbia Journalism School.


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