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Equity & Diversity Opinion

Teaching Immigrant Students to Look Forward

By Mary Ann Zehr — April 26, 2017 5 min read
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The prospects for many of the seniors I teach in a public high school in Washington are not normal. But on most days, I choose to proceed as if they are.

I teach English at an international academy within the Francis L. Cardozo Education Campus in the District of Columbia. All of my students are immigrants—many from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Others are from Ethiopia, Vietnam, and Sierra Leone. It’s hard for them, and for me, to ignore debates about immigration outside of the classroom that have the power to deeply affect their lives.

Some students ask me what President Donald Trump meant by “merit-based immigration” in a speech to Congress in February. I’ve been reflecting on what it means that Juan Manuel Montes Bojorquez, who was a beneficiary of the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, was deported to Mexico earlier this year. Both teachers and students have more questions than answers about immigration policy. It’s not always easy to focus on the lesson at hand.

A Journey to the Classroom

In the first six months of 2016 alone, 26,000 unaccompanied children were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border, according to UNICEF. Many of my students are among the thousands of unaccompanied minors who arrived in the United States after 2013.

Because the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Plyler v. Doe gave children the right to a free public education regardless of immigration status, I don’t ask students if they are living legally in the country. However, in journal entries or class discussions, they sometimes share that they are undocumented.

Many fled poverty or violence in their home countries to pursue a better life or reunite with family. Quite a few of my students have told me they were stopped by U.S. immigration-enforcement officials and detained before they were released to parents or extended family.

While some of my students hadn’t been to school for years, they love to learn and do well academically. They learn how to express themselves in English and take interest in future careers such as engineering, nursing, or physical therapy. Outside of the school day, they work to prepare food in some of the city’s most popular restaurants. Some work 40 or more hours a week or eventually drop out to work full-time. They pay their own bills or the bills of family members in their countries of origin.

Several weeks ago, I asked my students to write an essay analyzing the gender roles in the scene of a play. One young man who usually wastes no time in tackling assignments wiled away most of a 90-minute period without writing anything other than his name.

In the last 15 minutes of class, he blurted out, “Why do teachers not tell us the truth about what happens after high school?” The truth, he insisted, is that it is futile for undocumented students to go to college because they won’t be able use their degrees.

Making Room for Truth

When it comes to issues of immigration, I’ve often felt that I’m just winging it in my responses. Since many of my seniors are 18 or older, it can be patronizing for me to try to soothe their fears. I prefer to focus on what they can do rather than what they can’t do. I won’t give up on the idea that if students are doing well in school, they should try to go to college—regardless of their immigration status.

On this particular day, I took a deep breath. I didn’t want to pretend that all my students’ prospects are the same.

“It’s true you can’t be a doctor or a nurse in this country without papers,” I said, explaining that for those careers, people must take exams that require legal residency in the United States. But I added that it might be possible to work in health care for individuals in their homes. Or to use a computer science degree, because I know of some small companies that hire undocumented people.

At the same time, I said that someone shouldn’t abandon a dream career that isn’t attainable right now because of legal obstacles. “You never know how you will be able to use what you learn,” I told my students. “And no one can take your education away from you.”

The student who had raised the question seemed unconvinced.

I switched tactics and spoke from the heart. I admitted that I didn’t know what my students are going through. I told them I respect them because of the many hardships they’ve gone through and how, despite the challenges, they are still kind and honest. I told them how much I admire them for holding down jobs and trying to finish high school at the same time. I acknowledged that my life had been easy compared to theirs.

But while anti-immigrant sentiments are evident in the political realm these days, the United States could elect a president and legislators with pro-immigration views in the coming years.

The student cut off any further dialogue. “I am not OK right now,” he said. “I have so many problems to think about that I can’t concentrate on reading anything.”

I realized in that moment that I could not fix everything with my words. I could not always motivate my students to do a high school assignment because they didn’t see a normal life before them. And I would never be able to understand what that felt like.

Hope for the Future

The next week it snowed, and the student who had spoken out was one of the few seniors who came to school that day. He worked hard on his essay and told me he had found ways to cope with his feelings. He recently applied to college.

I didn’t grill him about what made him change his mind. I didn’t want to say something that he would perceive as sugarcoating the challenges he faces. His actions showed me he is willing to take a leap of faith by choosing to stay in school and apply to college. Despite uncertainty about the future, he has hope that someday he may have more opportunities in this country.

One of the most challenging aspects of teaching immigrant students who don’t have a clear picture of their prospects is determining what response is helpful in each situation. What will build relationships? As teachers, we need to continue to learn when to give information, when to speak from the heart, and when to say nothing. Above all, it’s our job to continue to encourage students’ dreams.

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