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How Educators Can Counter Anti-Immigrant and Anti-Refugee Rhetoric

By Coshandra Dillard — December 18, 2018 6 min read
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Editor’s note: There is currently a lot of controversy about and hateful rhetoric directed at immigrants and refugees. Today is International Migrants Day, so Teaching Tolerance staff writer Coshandra Dillard shares strategies and resources for educating youth about the immigrant and refugee experience and countering the negative rhetoric.

With each passing day, our society witnesses escalating hate directed toward immigrants and refugees seeking asylum in the United States. Countering this rhetoric, which negatively influences everyone—including impressionable students—may seem like a daunting task. But we must address it for many reasons, not the least of which is: Educating young people to be empathetic and to respect the rights of all humans is significantly easier than addressing hate and bias later.

Hateful rhetoric has always festered in American schools; in the era of social media, these incidents commonly reach news outlets before school administrators address them and turn them into teaching moments. Educators can be proactive in preventing hate by promoting human rights and teaching about a diversity of cultures in the curricula and beyond the classroom.

Perhaps the most troubling consequence of anti-immigrant rhetoric is its effect on the tiniest and most vulnerable people. According to a new report published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, anti-immigrant rhetoric produced stressors that may have contributed to an increase in preterm births among immigrant, Hispanic, and Muslim populations—all targets of President Donald Trump.

Trump’s presidency has contributed to the recent wave of anti-immigrant sentiment. People are even evoking his name when committing hate crimes or using hate speech, according to Documenting Hate, a project of ProPublica and Reveal. The project has tracked more than 300 reports of people using Trump’s name in hate speech since it began tracking in January 2017. So, it’s no surprise that the Trump administration’s divisive, anti-global, and anti-diversity stances have resulted in young people, and even some educators, following suit.

Teaching Tolerance compiles reports monthly on the state of hate in schools. They include incidents of Latinx students being subjected to chants of “Build the wall!” at school, as well as deportation taunts and jokes, explicit threats, and outright hostility aimed at both young people and their families.

While changing attitudes about immigration are certainly at play, educators must also look carefully at what, and when, their students learn about human migration. The movement of people is the story of the world, and it affects everyone. The UN Refugee Agency figures show that 1 in every 110 people globally is either an asylum-seeker or a refugee. That means there are more than 25 million refugees, 3.1 million asylum-seekers across the globe, and 40 million who are displaced internally in the United States.

It’s also vital that we all—especially young people—know and understand Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says, “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”

THE CURRICULUM

When students hear false, hateful rhetoric directed at immigrants and refugees, they will either believe it, question it, or absorb it as a message directed at them. By teaching students about America’s long and complex immigration story—including how groups of people move around the world to seek better lives—we establish an environment more conducive to effective, reasoned dialogue around this narrative.

Preparing

Fear of “the other” is often at the root of hate. Educators must first educate themselves about issues so that they are better advocates inside and outside of the classroom. Then, they can teach about, celebrate, and engage in dialogue about the experiences of various groups of people. It begins with setting classroom expectations and facilitating respectful conversations. Using Teaching Tolerance’s Civil Discourse in the Classroom, educators can provide students with tools to engage in controversial issues competently and respectfully.

The following resources support discussions about immigration to bust the myths students may be hearing and help students consider the perspectives of people of all backgrounds:

Diving In

Once educators have established an environment where students understand and can discuss the value of diversity, educators can dig into the actual issues to better understand and critique the rhetoric they’ll hear inside and outside of the classroom.

Consider these three steps:

Teach the basics. Who are refugees, immigrants, and asylum-seekers? It may be easy for students to confuse these terms. Have students define the terms and allow time to discuss what each term means in different parts of the world. The U.N. Refugee Agency provides resources to teach the basics to students of all ages. Educators can stimulate productive discussions in class by using resources from the American Federation of Teachers and Share My Lessons.

Examine history. Human migration has always been a continuous flow of movement around the globe for different reasons, whether due to war, famine, or lack of economic opportunities. Show how U.S. immigration policies evolved and were developed to exclude certain groups of people. An Educator’s Guide to the Immigration Debate is a great place to start. The Global Oneness Project also has a lesson plan called “A Refugee’s Story.”

Emphasize empathy. Encourage students to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. Educators should model that behavior as well. Begin with surveying students and then provide an activity that helps students become more conscious of other people’s feelings. At a fundamental level, we must instill in youth that they should recognize everyone’s humanity. One way to do this is to give students the opportunity to read texts written by immigrants and refugees.

BEYOND THE CLASSROOM

Countering anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rhetoric takes more than classroom conversations. Educators who are devoted to social justice are in a good position to turn history lessons into real action that make a difference in their classroom—and outside of it.

Try these three steps:

Advocate for district policies that protect immigrant students. Lobby school officials to create resolutions and plans that safeguard students who are victims of hate rhetoric or subjected to unjust immigration policies.

Advocate for immigrant and other marginalized communities. If your school has no immigrants or lacks diversity, join groups that provide support to immigration and refugee efforts and lend your voice.

Provide social and emotional support to immigrant students and their families. For example, Teaching Tolerance developed a comprehensive resource, This Is Not a Drill, for educators who want to stand with vulnerable communities.

Even if your school doesn’t serve a large immigrant population, you should still make a concerted effort to debunk myths, teach about various experiences, and encourage students to be more empathetic. Many schools have district-level diversity officers who can support this work.

And, finally, no matter the makeup of a school, explore topics beyond race, ethnicity, and immigration, such as ability, religion, class, sexual orientation, and gender. Engaging a wide range of topics about diversity helps foster a more inclusive environment for all students, no matter what their identity or background.

Follow Coshandra, Teaching Tolerance, Heather, and the Center for Global Education on Twitter.

Image created on Pablo.

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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