Panel Paper: Unwelcome Guests? The Effects of Refugees on the Educational Outcomes of Incumbent Students

Saturday, November 4, 2017
Gold Coast (Hyatt Regency Chicago)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Umut Ozek, American Institutes for Research and David Figlio, Northwestern University

The world is experiencing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the end of World War II. According to the figures released by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as of the end of 2015, there were 65.3 million refugees and internally displaced people around the globe – the largest number in history. More than a million Middle Eastern refugees crossed into Europe in 2015, triggering a series of major political and humanitarian crises as countries scramble to cope with the influx. The ripple effects of this new wave of refugees are also felt across the Atlantic, with the number of asylum seekers from Middle Eastern countries reaching record highs in the United States and Canada and sparking spirited political debates. The main point of contention in debates on refugees is the possible adverse effects of refugees on host communities; however, these debates mostly take place in what is close to an empirical vacuum.

In this study, we present the first evidence on the effects of a large influx of refugees on the educational outcomes of incumbent students. We focus specifically on one of the largest recent inflows of refugees into the United States – those who entered immediately following the devastating earthquake on January 12, 2010 that killed more than 200,000 people and affected a third of the population in Haiti; approximately 60,000 earthquake survivors moved to the United States immediately following the earthquake. We make use of rich, longitudinal education microdata from the Florida – host to two-third’s of the Haitian refugees -- 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.

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 are more likely to settle in neighborhoods with larger shares of immigrants from their country of origin. 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. We also use the birth dates of refugee students as an instrument for their grade placement to deal with the possible strategic placement of refugee students across grades within schools. We find precisely estimated zero effects of refugees on the educational outcomes of incumbent students in the year of the earthquake or in the two years that follow, regardless of the socioeconomic status, grade level, or the birthplace of incumbent students.

Full Paper: