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Equity & Diversity Opinion

Four Strategies to Support Immigrant Students

By Clare Kambhu & Marissa Gutierrez-Vicario — June 14, 2019 7 min read
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Clare Kambhu is an artist and public school art teacher, and Marissa Gutierrez-Vicario is the executive director of Art and Resistance Through Education (ARTE) and co-chair of Human Rights Educators USA.

In the heart of Elmhurst, Queens, one of the most diverse neighborhoods in all of New York City and possibly the United States, there is an international high school that welcomes students from across Latin America as they study and build community in their new country. The image to the right is a mural we helped co-create with students on our campus showing a collage of their and their loved ones’ faces inside bright butterfly wings with the message, “Without the weight of discrimination, we can fly.” A simple statement but a reminder of the need to create strong communities that support, serve, and amplify the voices of all people, including immigrants, and to dismantle the systems of oppression and discrimination.

Below is a list of four effective strategies we have used to support immigrant students and create a classroom and campus culture that actively fights for immigrant rights. While we have directly worked with and advocated for immigrant youths, we are not directly impacted by the immigration system, so we honor the work of activists, organizations, and other youth organizers who live this experience.

1. Being an Informal Advocate

Many educators might be unaware of the challenges that some of their undocumented students experience as they navigate institutions and systems while seeking asylum in the United States. Some students might be frequently absent. Some might be missing a large amount of school because of court appearances or other judicial matters pertaining to their immigration status. Some might experience a high level of anxiety about their status, financial concerns, perceived isolation, and the risk of deportation and detainment, according to a study from the Institute for Immigration, Globalization and Education at the University of California Los Angeles.

When educators are aware of what their undocumented students are experiencing, they can better support them. Educators can become informal advocates for their students when they have better communication with support staff on campus, such as social workers and counselors. Such communication can assist educators in figuring out how to best support immigrant students on a case-by-case basis. It may be that a teacher does not know the immigration status of a particular student, but a counselor does or vice versa. Because the safety and privacy of students are of utmost importance, students might feel safer if their immigration status is not made public, and therefore it is important that school staff create trust when communicating with each other and students.

Not all immigrant students share the same experiences, and access to resources varies for those who are undocumented and documented. Teachers may be called upon to write character reference letters for courts. Students may also present their grades as part of their court cases. Teachers can provide academic support to those who might be in the process of applying for asylum or facing other immigration-related challenges. No student, regardless of status, should be left behind in the classroom, and being more aware of the issues that an undocumented student might face is one way that educators can informally advocate for them.

2. Integrating Curriculum for Immigrant Rights

Integrating practices and content that highlight the immigrant experience is another way that educators can create a safer classroom for all of their students. Several organizations, including Teaching Tolerance and Amplifier, in partnership with Leah the Activist and Families Belong Together, have developed lesson plans and resources about immigration.

Curriculum that integrates the arts is especially valuable for introducing conversations about immigration. Creating and discussing art is a way for students to talk about immigration issues without the anxiety, frustration, or discomfort of having to name them directly. For example, art can be used to make important connections between the immigration and mass incarceration systems in the United States. It is also an opportunity for students to reflect on and process issues they may not understand or feel confused about.

It is equally important to introduce students to immigrant artists and those who are directly impacted by the immigrant experience. Artists like Julio Salgado and the UndocuQueer Movement create art about the immigrant experience and the intersection of LGBTQ issues, mobilizing a “network of queer undocumented-immigrant activists organizing for the rights of undocumented youths and their families.”

3. Being Political Advocates

Outside the classroom, educators can show their support for undocumented students and their communities, including voting for legislation that actively protects the rights of immigrants to helping immigrant students organize on their campuses or in the community. Often, education is touted as the solution to social injustices, but in many ways, it is only one step of a longer journey toward creating a more equitable society.

Educators can learn about legislation that directly impacts their immigrant students. For instance, this past year, New York passed the Dream Act, which “for the first time offers undocumented students access to state financial aid and scholarships for higher education.” This is especially valuable because while many undocumented students might succeed academically throughout their high school experiences, upon graduation, without financial support, dreams of continuing their education become extinguished. While New York passed this legislation, the reality is that immigrant communities across the country still lack access to resources for higher education.

Outside the classroom, educators can work with immigrant populations to organize in spaces where students can share and amplify their voices in a way that feels authentic and comfortable for them to share their reflections, experiences, and requests of fellow students for direct support.

4. Creating Safe Spaces

New Sanctuary Coalition, a New York City-based organization that, since 2007, “has been led by and for immigrants to stop the inhumane system of deportations and detentions” within the United States, frequently questions and challenges the language that society uses in discourse about the immigration experience. For instance, instead of using the term “illegal” or “alien,” as much of the mainstream media have done for many years, educators can create safe classrooms with their students simply by introducing new terms to describe immigrants and immigrant communities. Educators can work directly with their immigrant students to come up with more welcoming terms for immigrant communities and decide upon the terms that they prefer.

Furthermore, it is important to acknowledge that not all immigrant students come from the same background or share the same experiences, and it may be valuable to dispel such misconceptions in the classroom. Talking about immigration does not mean only talking about one type of immigration, for instance, only talking about Latin American immigration. Having discussions about immigration in the classroom is also deeply intertwined with conversations about class, race, and privilege.

These strategies are based on our direct experiences with immigrant communities; these experiences will undoubtedly vary across the country and around the world. What strategies do you use to support immigrants? We welcome your suggestions below.

Some additional resources include:

Follow ARTE, Human Rights Educators USA, Heather, and the Center for Global Education on Twitter.

Photo credit (both photos): Marissa Gutierrez-Vicario. Used with permission.

First photo: Mural from school in Elmhurst, Queens.

Second photo: Students in N.Y.C, create art as part of their curriculum.

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The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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