Classroom Resources for Talking and Teaching about Immigrant Family Separations

Updated: February 21, 2019.

On May 7, 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced of what he called “ a “zero tolerance” policy for illegal entry on our Southwest border.” Session’s explained, “If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you.” Sessions and others in the administration defend the controversial policy, arguing that such actions are legal and serve as deterrents that will cause people to think twice before attempting to cross the U.S. border.  In response, critics have argued that Session’s description of parents smuggling their own children is offensive, some have countered that many of those parents are fleeing violence in search of safety for their families. It is unclear how many families have been affected by these actions, however, one particular case, the suicide of Marco Antonio Muñoz in a Texas jail, a Honduran immigrant who was separated from his wife and child, has come to symbolize the grief felt by some immigrant parents.

After days of intense media coverage, political and public pressure, President Trump signed an executive order on June 20, 2018 that puts an end to immigrant family separations. It reads, in part:

“It is the policy of this Administration to rigorously enforce our immigration laws.  Under our laws, the only legal way for an alien to enter this country is at a designated port of entry at an appropriate time.  When an alien enters or attempts to enter the country anywhere else, that alien has committed at least the crime of improper entry and is subject to a fine or imprisonment under section 1325(a) of title 8, United States Code…It is also the policy of this Administration to maintain family unity, including by detaining alien families together where appropriate and consistent with law and available resources.”

On June 26, a Federal Judge ruled that the U.S. government had to work to reunite families immediately. CNN reported:

The court order specifically requires federal officials to stop detaining parents apart from their minor children, absent a determination the parent is unfit or the parent declines reunification; reunify all parents with their minor children who are under the age of 5 within 14 days and reunify all parents with their minor children age 5 and older within 30 days.

The order also mandates that officials provide parents contact with their children by phone within 10 days, if the parent is not already in contact with his or her child.

A January 2019 report from the Office of Inspector General (OIG) at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) finds that many family separations were happening before the “zero-tolerance policy” was passed and some have continued happening after the policy ended. Additionally, the report concludes that the number of children separated from families is unknown since no proper system of documentation existed. 

Public attention has focused largely on children separated from their parents who are covered by a widely reported Federal court order. But, more children, over a longer period of time, have been separated from their parents or guardians and referred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) for care , according to an issue brief published today by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Office of Inspector General (OIG).

An explanation of the full report on PBS NewsHour by Amna Nawaz can be found here


We have collected a series of reliable sources to help you talk and teach about this important civic issue:

Attorney General Sessions Delivers Remarks Discussing the Immigration Enforcement Actions of the Trump Administration, U.S. Justice Department of Justice, Press Release, May 7, 2018.

The Trump administration’s separation of families at the border, explained, Vox, Explainers, June 11, 2018.

Homeland Security chief defends separating immigrant families, PBS News Hour, May 15, 2018

Mass Protests Planned in 30 Cities Over ‘Inhumane’ Separation oF Families at Border, Newsweek, June 1, 2018.

AP FACT CHECK: Trump Blames Dems for Border Separations, New York Times, June 5, 2018

Sen. Jeff Merkley says images of migrant processing center are “seared” in his mind, CBS News, June 6, 2018.

UN: ‘Nothing normal’ about U.S. detaining immigrant children, PBS News Hour, June 5, 2018.

Family Separation at Border May Be Subject to Constitutional Challenge, Judge Rules, New York Times, June 6, 2018.

‘It’s Horrendous’: The Heartache of a Migrant Boy Taken From His Father, New York Times, June 7, 2018.

Honduran migrant who was separated from family is found dead in Texas jail in an apparent suicide, Los Angeles Times, June 9, 2018.

‘They just took them?’ Frantic parents separated from their kids fill courts on the border, Washington Post, June 9, 2018

New ‘zero tolerance’ policy overwhelms South Texas courts, Houston Chronicle, June 9, 2018.

A Statement from Daniel Cardinal DiNardo, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, June 13, 2018.

Inside Casa Padre, the converted Walmart where the U.S. is holding nearly 1,500 immigrant children, Washington Post, June 14, 2018.

Trump Injects Chaos Into Immigration Debate — Opposing, Then Backing GOP Bill, NPR, June 15, 2018.

Laura Bush: Separating children from their parents at the border ‘breaks my heart’, Washington Post, June 17, 2018.

‘Free our children now’ — On the U.S.-Mexico border, activists protest separation of immigrant families, PBS News Hour, June 17, 2018.

‘We Do Not Have A Policy’ Of Separating Families, DHS Head Says, Contradicting Policy, NPR, June 18, 2018.

Trump Administration Releases Video of Immigrant Detention Facility, National Review, June 18, 2018.

‘I wanted to stop her crying’: The image of a migrant child that broke a photographer’s heart, Washington Post, June 18, 2018.

What separation from parents does to children: ‘The effect is catastrophic’, Boston Globe, June 19, 2018.

Republican senators urge Trump to end ‘zero tolerance’ policy breaking up migrant families, The Independent, June 20, 2018.

Affording Congress an Opportunity to Address Family Separation, White House, June 20, 2018.

Trump Signs Order To End Family Separations, NPR, June 20, 2018.

One Family’s Reunification Story, New York Times, The Daily, July 6, 2018.

The ‘Ineligible’ Families, New York Times, The Daily, July 26, 2018.

HHS OIG: Many Children Separated from Parents, Guardians Before Ms. L. v. Ice Court Order and Some Separations Continue, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Inspector General, January 17, 2019

Report: Number of Families Separated at the Border Unknown Due to Bad Bookkeeping, PBS NewsHour, January 17, 2019

Separated Children Placed in Office of Refugee Resettlement Care, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Inspector General, January 2019

Teaching Suggestions

This is a very sensitive topic that raises powerful emotions for many people. Before introducing this subject, make sure you know your students. Might any of them have friends and family that are personally impacted by this decision? Might any of them have family experiences that might make them particularly sensitive to the discussion? If so, find appropriate ways to check in with them before, during, and after class. As an educator, relationships matter.

As with any potentially challenging or controversial discussion, either create or review your classroom contract. It helps for students to be reminded of classroom norms.

Is your goal to inform, to discuss and reflect upon a critical civic issue, is it to debate policy? Is this a news literacy activity? The desired result should align with the kind of activities you use with students.

As you read about the immigrant family separations, what words, images, and phrases stuck out for you? Educators might consider creating a graffiti board or a word cloud to capture the various perspectives.

According to CASEL, social awareness is a core competency of social and emotional learning or SEL. They define it as “[t]he ability to take the perspective of and empathize with others, including those from diverse backgrounds and cultures.” Make sure you allow time for students to hear both the multiple perspectives from the various news sources and also the perspectives of their peers. Below are two strategies you might find helpful:

Reflective learning communities find ways to acknowledge what we learn by being in conversation with each other.

If you were to create an iceberg diagram (following Facing History’s teaching strategy), with the immigrant family separations above the surface of the water, what would be below? What issues, words, ideas, and values are coming together to shape events and influence the choices people are making in response?

  • What do we learn about this story from the parents whose children have been taken from them? Why have they come to the US? What were their motivations? What are their concerns now?
  • What factors seem to be influencing Session’s “zero-tolerance” policy? How does he explain the decision? How do other’s defend family separations?
  • The news sources include a range of other perspectives including critics, how do they explain their opposition? What do the news sources reveal about who they are and their motivation to speak out.

As a way to better understand the perspective of anyone mentioned in the sources you are using, consider using Project Zero’s Step in – Step out – Step back thinking routine.

After discussing the issues involved, have students consider the significance of the stories of immigrant family separations. We love Project Zero’s “Three Why’s” thinking routine as a way to facilitate reflection.

Recognizing that discussing current and controversial events is a proven practice in civic education, consider ways to move your students from being passive learners to taking some sort of action. You might ask students to facilitate a discussion about the topic with the adults in their lives or to write a two-minute speech or to create a poster meant to educate others about their perspective.  You might encourage students to interview their peers to see what they know about the topic or to understand their perspectives.

We hope you find these ideas useful, follow up on facebook and twitter to keep up with Re-Imagining Migration and check our website frequently for new resources.