4 Practical Steps to Help Immigrant Families in Your School Community
Educators have a responsibility to all students, including undocumented and refugee children
Over the past year, a flurry of new immigration policy directives and actions have gushed forth like water from a broken fire hydrant, layering over each other and causing confusion for schools and other service providers. The shifting landscape means educators must proactively consider how the current U.S. political climate is affecting their increasing number of students from immigrant families, including those who are undocumented and whose families are of mixed legal status.
A 2016 Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that roughly a quarter of all U.S. children have at least one immigrant parent. And, according to a Pew Research Center report from the same year, approximately 7 percent of students in grades K-12 (or 3.9 million children) have at least one undocumented parent. The majority of these students are U.S. citizens—only around 725,000 are themselves undocumented—and they live all over the country, from small rural Midwestern towns to growing cities in the Southeast to large urban ethnic enclaves.
While such statistics mostly account for families and children who have been in the United States for years, there are countless other families who are trying to enter the country today in order to escape war, poverty, and violence. Despite judicial rulings requiring the reunification of families separated at the border earlier this year, many parents still do not know how and when they will see their children again. Most recently, the Trump administration has proposed a rule to allow longer detention of migrant children, challenging long-time precedent established by the Flores settlement. Whether families live near the United States-Mexico border or in a Heartland state, these events have instilled fear that any kind of refugee or immigrant family could be ripped apart.
This is enough to signal that pre-K-12 educators need to protect children in ways that may not have been covered in their previous training. For instance, some schools or districts may call themselves “sanctuary” schools, attempting to signal that they will protect individuals of undocumented status by not allowing U.S. Immigrant and Customs Enforcement officials onto their campus without a warrant. However, there is often confusion about schools’ responsibilities to immigrant children and parents, particularly if they are undocumented. Teachers and principals may feel at a loss for how to respond to potential ICE raids or recently arrived students who have experienced incredible trauma.
As researchers, we have studied how school leaders and other educators perceive their legal and professional ethical responsibilities toward undocumented students. Combined with our work preparing school leaders and language educators, we can offer some practical advice to address what educational stakeholders need to know right now:
• Legal and ethical responsibilities: Every child in the United States has a legal right to a free, public K-12 education, according to the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Plyler v. Doe. Importantly, this includes unaccompanied minors, undocumented youth, and those seeking asylum. Under federal guidance, school districts cannot ask about or report children’s immigration status. This is why the U.S. Secretary of Education’s June comment that it was “up to local” schools to decide whether or not to report children to ICE sparked such an uproar.
Ethically, educators should strive to meet the needs of all students. Be sure all faculty, families, and volunteers in the school district learn specifics about immigration in your state.
Consider conducting an “Immigrant Equity Audit” in your district. Ask questions to learn personnel’s knowledge of policies, legal responsibilities, language education, and the kind of programs that sustain immigrant families’ cultural wealth.
• Preparedness: Ensure that your school leaders and school board members are not only aware of their legal responsibilities under Plyler v. Doe, but also local policies that respond to ICE.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement states that it considers locations like schools and churches sensitive, meaning it tries to be mindful of conducting operations near them. This does not mean, however, that ICE cannot legally operate near schools—or that its presence in the broader community will not affect the school environment.
Collaborate with immigration lawyers for training. All faculty in the district, from front office personnel to teachers to building principals, should know who to contact if ICE comes to a school or creates a stir in the community. In many cases, this may be the district’s legal counsel. School counselors should also be prepared to offer trauma counseling to children whose parents have been detained, and teachers and principals must have a plan to get children home safely—or to an alternate home if necessary—if an ICE raid occurs.
School board members should consider attending state or national conferences where such topics are addressed.
• Critical media literacy: In an era where viral videos and opinions are presented as fact, educators must read across the political spectrum to understand multiple perspectives on an issue. They should also be sure to teach students how to assess evidence and critically analyze information—and to empathize with others’ conditions and stories. See “Civic Online Reasoning” resources by the Stanford History Education Group.
• Boundary work: Recognize that people often understand the world as “them” and “us,” and in turn may neglect what we have in common. Commit to learning how to cross boundaries, sustain engagement with immigrant families, and provide spaces for sharing stories and experiences with all kinds of stakeholders. Utilize resources in the classroom that build empathy and counter prevalent stereotypes and myths about immigration. Focus on finding common ground.
Our national discourse on immigration policy can feel threatening to immigrants and refugees. Our policy directives seem focused on dividing immigrant families—potentially at the expense of human rights—rather than displaying compassion and valuing human dignity. Across the country, rural, suburban, and urban communities continue to experience demographic change. We know that educators can step up and speak out, tapping their courage and deep compassion to prepare themselves for whatever may come. We have seen school leaders and others working to meet the needs of their newest constituents as best they can. Together, equipped with some understanding of U.S. immigration law—and combined with educating for love, the heart, and mind—we can meet our students’ challenges and support those who seek life in new communities.