Classrooms across the country are serving the most diverse cohort of students in our nation’s history. A quarter of all U.S. children are first- and second-generation immigrants, according to a 2014 report by Child Trends, and have families originating from every nation on Earth. Yet millions of immigrant students continually find their place in our country challenged.
Earlier this month, President Donald Trump announced that he would end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and gave Congress six months to find a more permanent solution. DACA, an Obama-era program, allowed roughly 800,000 undocumented young people, who came to the United States as children, temporary protections from deportation. The program also enabled them to get work permits. DACA’s termination spells an unknown future.
As researchers working at the intersection of education and immigration at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Re-imagining Migration—a nonprofit that trains educators to create understanding and inclusive classrooms for immigrant students and their peers—we have evidence that immigrant children and youths are aware of the intolerance that others feel toward them.
Two of us (Carola and Marcelo Suárez-Orozco) conducted a five-year study from 1997 to 2002 in reaction to the zenith of the last migratory wave that reached its peak in the 1990s. We interviewed 400 newcomer public school students ages 10-14 in Boston and Northern California who had arrived from Asia, the Caribbean, and Latin America. Some were refugees, some were undocumented, some had highly educated parents, and still others had interrupted schooling. We were interested in understanding how these students, in seven different school districts, were adapting to their new country.
One of many questions we asked was a simple fill-in-the-blank: “Most Americans think that most people [from the respondent’s birthplace] are_____.”
The results, published in 2010, revealed that 65 percent of children responded in the negative. The most frequent word used was “bad.” One 14-year-old boy said that most Americans think Mexicans are “lazy, gangsters, and drug addicts that only come to take their jobs away.” Other pejorative associations in response to how a student’s nationality was perceived focused on contamination—"We are garbage,” another 14-year-old boy said—as well as competence—"We can’t do the same things as [nonimmigrants] in school or work,” said a 10-year-old girl.
What’s more, youths hailing from different countries reported consistency among the negative-perception patterns. Although a little less than half the Chinese students completed the sentence with a negative response, 75 percent of Mexican students and 82 percent of Dominican and Haitian students did so. What was true when we first surveyed newcomers is true today, as research continues to show that immigrant students still perceive negative attitudes about themselves and their countries of origin in the public sphere.
Even as the future remains uncertain, classrooms must still be the safe haven immigrant students deserve."
Since its 2007 peak, undocumented immigration has steadily declined. Today, the vast majority of immigrants are documented in some way—naturalized as refugees or here on some sort of visa. While only a small portion of current K-12 students are DACA recipients, 4.1 million citizen children have a parent or relative who is undocumented. A number of studies show students feel tremendous uncertainty about the fate of many of their closest relatives.
All too often, immigrant students or children of immigrants are isolated from their peers, whether because of language or social barriers. Teachers can be first responders to immigrant students’ fears. With a little guidance, immigrant students’ peers, who are witnessing their classmates navigate this turbulence, can also learn how to be respectful and supportive. But just as this is challenging for the students in the classroom, teachers often need help to navigate this rocky terrain.
Too many projects aimed at engaging immigrant youths are treated as one-off experiences and not integrated into academics. To break down isolation, teachers must create space for all students to share their families’ experiences of migration. Since the first people arrived more than 15,000 years ago on this continent to the ongoing global migration of today, migration—whether voluntary or involuntary—has defined the American experience. Helping students to recognize historical patterns and discontinuities can empower them with knowledge to counter myths and misinformation.
The classroom must be a place of listening. Educators can create classroom contracts with their students to clarify expectations about how students should treat each other. Bullying, hate, and intolerance are an anathema to the give-and-take required for all students to flourish.
In the American tradition, classrooms and schools should be places where citizenship and democratic ideals come to life for every student. Even as the future remains uncertain, classrooms must still be the safe haven immigrant students deserve.
A version of this article appeared in the September 20, 2017 edition of Education Week as Immigrant Students Internalize Stereotypes. Educators Can Fix That