Supporting Undocumented Students and Mixed-Status Families

How teachers can create a safe and inclusive environment for students navigating immigration status stress

May 1, 2018
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Undocumented children and adults carry a level of uncertainty and worry every day — and the burden has only intensified since the election of President Trump and the anti-immigrant sentiment and policies that have followed.

The Trump Administration's 2017 decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program has put recipients — and those eligible to enroll — on a precarious tilt-a-whirl as they await court decisions, contend with renewed fears of deportation, and wait to see if the program reopens.

For the more than 1 million undocumented students now in K–12 and college classrooms, and the more than 5 million children with at least one undocumented parent, this moment of anxiety requires a special kind of support. Caring teachers can help, through often-simple gestures and actions that can have deep significance.

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DACA means more than just protection from deportation. It provides students and adults with a safe and legal way to work, drive, and travel. Anxiety over its future is a burden that students and families carry in their daily lives.

We asked a pair of educators who’ve worked closely with undocumented students, and who now run training programs and offer resources for schools, employers, and community organizations, about how best to support the social-emotional and other needs of these students. The two — Alma Valverde and Ielaf Altoma — lead a group called UndocuAllies, based at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Start with language.

  • Don’t use words or phrases like “illegals,” “here illegally,” or “alien.” Instead, use the terms “undocumented” and “immigrant.” Be aware that some undocumented students like the term “Dreamers,” but not all.
  • Speak inclusively, and make sure that your messages don’t apply only to students with legal status. For instance, when talking about college applications, say, “Today, we’re going to talk about applying for the FAFSA, state financial aid, and other loans." Or say, "Here are some scholarships that require a social security number, and here are some scholarships that don’t.” Present options — in an unprompted, undisturbed way — that allow undocumented students to be included in the conversation.  
  • Embed inclusive language in every aspect of your practice.

Create a feeling of welcome to allow trust building.

  • Don’t pressure any student to disclose his or her status.
  • Create a supportive environment, in which a student might choose to disclose. 
  • Make yourself visible as an ally. In addition to using inclusive language and following other best practices listed here, you can use stickers or hang posters to openly proclaim support for undocumented students.
  • Normalize. Some young people don't have citizenship status; it's not rare; it's a part of their lives and identities.
  • Help create community for students who may be feeling lonely, isolated, or in the shadows. With their permission, connect students to one another and to outside organizations. For some students, even learning that there is an activist movement working on their behalf can be sustaining.
  • Be sure to address anti-immigrant statements or harassment immediately. Use any incidents as an opportunity to educate students and set norms for classroom dialogue and for what is acceptable and what’s not.

Embrace diversity and show interest in the cultural backgrounds of your students.

Understand the nuances and the emotions.

  • DACA means more than just protection from deportation. It provides students with a safe and legal way to work, drive, and travel. The threat of its removal would significantly, and negatively, affect students’ daily lives.
  • Even if students are citizens or otherwise in legal status, their parents may not be. According to UndocuAllies, about 5.5 million children in the United States are members of “mixed-status families,” where at least one or more family member is undocumented. Of these children, 4.5 million are U.S. citizens. The fear of a parent or sibling’s deportation can be debilitating.
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An Educators' Guide

Download this clear and helpful guide from Educators for Fair Consideration:
Top 10 Ways to Support Undocumented Students

Help make good on the promise of education.

  • In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plyler v. Doe that states cannot deny children a public K–12 education based on their immigration status. Despite periodic attempts to sidestep or undermine the ruling, this case continues to ensure that undocumented students are entitled to equal access to education.
  • Implicit in that ruling is the promise of education — the notion that learning creates opportunities for healthier, more productive, and more secure lives. Every student can dream about and plan for their future.

Know that undocumented students can go to college.

  • They cannot be awarded federal aid, but the majority will qualify for in-state tuition rates at state-run schools (only three states prohibit that). At least six states allow undocumented students to receive state financial aid. And there are other sources of support, including institutional aid and private and foundation grants.  
  • This site allows educators and students to explore the in-state and financial aid policies of their own states. 
  • If undocumented students have disclosed their status, talk more specifically about the pathway to college. Encourage them. Acknowledge that the road to college will be different and, in some cases, more difficult, but that great numbers of undocumented students, with and without DACA, get there.
  • Convey messages to all students, and all families, about the opportunity to pursue college and the benefits of applying. Here is a guide for parents, in English and Spanish, that will help them support their children.

Know that you have support, too.

  • It may seem as if educators are being asked to do a lot — and that you have to do it all alone. To counter that feeling, meet with colleagues and do an asset-mapping exercise. Document the community organizations that can support you, the school and district assets that could be deployed, and — perhaps most important — the strength (resilience, determination, support systems) of your students and their families.
  • Not every ally has to be an activist. Find a comfortable level at which to engage. Offering support in small, everyday ways can convey hope and keep students moving forward.  

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Schools serve as a key point of welcome for immigrant and refugee children in America, but politics and changing demographics are complicating how we assist these newcomers. In a special series, we look at the strategies and practices that best support newcomer students and their families. Read more in Welcoming Newcomers.

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College and Career Diversity and Inclusion K-12