Who Are Our Immigrant-Origin Students?

Who are our immigrant students and what do educators need to know to support them in academically, socially, and in their civic lives?

The children of immigrants are highly diverse in terms of class, racial, ethnic, religious, and linguistic backgrounds. Beyond that, some are the children of highly educated professional parents, whereas others may have illiterate parents. Some received excellent schooling, whereas others left educational systems that were in shambles. Some escaped political, religious, or ethnic persecution; others were motivated by the promise of better jobs and better educational opportunities. Some are documented migrants, whereas others are unauthorized young migrants. Some join well-established communities with robust social supports, whereas others move from one migrant camp to another, their children forced to change schools frequently. The pathways and outcomes of immigrant students will vary greatly as a function of both the resources they may bring with them and the context in the new society into which they arrive.


  • What do you know about the identities and experiences of your students?
  • How might they impact your students’ lives in school?
  • It might be helpful to focus on one or two specific students to start.

The First Generation

First-generation students are born outside of the United States but include a complex array of individuals ranging from those who arrived in early childhood to those who arrived late in adolescence, entering school well into their educational careers. Time and circumstances of arrival have clear developmental, acculturative, and linguistic implications. Arriving at an earlier age, long before puberty, with maximum exposure to the U.S. school system will provide an immigrant-origin youth with an experience that is much closer to that of a second-generation (defined as someone born in this country with foreign-born parents) students. She may have minimal recollection of her country of origin and is likely to come to speak the host country’s language with no trace of an accent. Nonetheless, she may share with some of her first-generation peers the burden of not being documented. And she certainly shares the experience with her second-generation peers of having parents who may not readily embrace the new country’s norms. Her parents may have strict expectations and child-raising norms attuned to the ways of the old country.

The first generation is particularly complex in its composition. Roughly speaking, it can be broken down into two categories that have deep implications for the day-to-day experiences of childhood as well as for longer-term trajectories for “future participation in society” (see Figure 2 below).


Notably, in the United States, refugees make up a relatively small proportion of our immigrant origin population. Refugee and asylum-seeking students and their families share many of the features of other immigrants. In addition, however, most have experienced some form of traumatic event at some point in their journeys—either prior to their migration, during the course of their journey, or after arriving at their receiving contexts (or in some cases at each of these points) . Though not all refugee children and youth respond with emotional difficulties, they are more likely to do so given a higher exposure to stress that they may have undergone at the various stages of the migration journey. (see Figure 3 below) .

Figure 3: Potential responses to stress


These students are defined as foreign-born students who entered the public schools within the last three years. Many, if not most, are acquiring English and are also adapting to a new land and educational system. They face a series of acculturative stresses and social-emotional challenges [see “Addressing Social Emotional Learning Issues section”].

In New York City’s Department of Education (NYCDOE) ELL Policy and Reference Guide, “newcomer ELL’s [English Language Learners]” are identified under CR Part 154.8 These students have received English as their new language of instruction, either as a component of bilingual education or as freestanding English as a new language program for a total of zero to three enrolled school years. Within NYCDOE, “newcomer ELLs” include both students who arrived very recently and exhibit little or no knowledge of English and US-born students who are at the emerging, transitioning, or higher levels [see How Are Immigrant-Origin students and English Learners Related?]

Many children of immigrants, particularly EL students, feel isolated from their peers.

  • How could you create supportive relationships within your classroom and school? Can you think of a time when you have helped a student feel included in your classroom?
  • Can you think of a time when you have seen other students reach out to new peers to make them feel successfully included in your classroom?
  • How do you communicate with families? How do you learn about your students’ home cultures/values/expectations?


Students with Interrupted/Inconsistent Formal Education (SIFE), as implied by the name, have not been exposed to consistent formal education. These students have attended schools in the United States for fewer than twelve months and upon their initial enrollment in such schools were two or more years below grade level in literacy in their home language and/or two or more years below grade level in mathematics due to inconsistent or interrupted schooling prior to their arrival in the United States. Once a SIFE student is performing at or above the transitioning/intermediate level on the annual English language proficiency assessment, the student’s status as a Student with Inconsistent/Interrupted Formal Education is removed—though the student may continue to be identified as an English Learner.

SIFE students have typically attended schools in the United States for fewer than twelve months and are below grade level.
Best Practices for SIFE Students Include:

  • Identify whether newly placed newcomer students or struggling EL may be SIFE
  • Administer a home language survey to determine if student is potentially EL
  • Review Academic Records
  • Assess English language proficiency
  • Assess native language proficiency (if screening is available in student native language)
  • Interview Student about their educational history:
    • Ask students to draw a timeline of their educational history starting with age they started their
    • At what age did s/he enter school and in what country(ies)?
    • When did s/he enter U.S. schools?
    • What schools did s/he attend each year? Where?
    • How many hours a day did s/he typically attend school?
    • Were there ever any interruptions in her/his education? Why?
    • Before migrating, what subjects did s/he most enjoy? And what subjects were most difficult?
    • Today, what subjects does s/he most enjoy? And what subjects are most difficult?
  • Once identified as SIFE, develop an individualized learning plan for the student that acknowledges and incorporates
    student’s existing skills and knowledge in order to facilitate connections to learn the necessary academic skills to be
  • It would be a mistake to dismiss student’s intelligence or academic ability based on their facility with academic
    English or their previous educational experiences.
  • These students require all of the supports that other newcomer and EL need—around language learning and socioemotional supports—and more.
  • Recognize that SIFE students are often mature beyond their years and frequently juggle multiple familial and/or work responsibilities beyond academic demands. This requires additional flexibility and patience on the part of educators and school systems including orientation to schooling practices as well as flexible schedules.

The Second Generation

The children of immigrants share some common features with the first-generation. Their parents are from a country of origin other than the host country and, as such, bring with them different cultural practices and expectations as well as often bringing another language. Although the second generation is protected by birthright citizenship, some of these students live in mixed-status families and therefore live with concerns about family deportations and family separations. Furthermore, their families may also not access services to which they are entitled as birthright citizens (like preschool, libraries, and health care) as they may not be aware of entitlements or may be concerned about exposing themselves to scrutiny. Second-generation students share many commonalities with first-generation students. Some of these shared characteristics are based on the circumstances related to family socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, religion, and immigration status. Second- generation students, like their first-generation peers may also enter kindergarten without speaking English fluently. They also often contend with anti-immigration sentiments
(sometimes referred to as xenophobia) focused towards their families that are reflected in the media, in neighborhood interactions, in school, and even in the leadership at the highest level of government. Members of the second generation, however, are by birthright, automatically citizens (though they may still fear for the deportation of their parents and other loved ones). They typically have more exposure to English and are often more acculturated than the first-generation or their parents. This situation can sometimes lead to acculturative
gaps and tensions within the family.

For Further Reading
Students with interrupted/inconsistent formal education: questions and answers. (2016) Albany, NY: NYSED.
Sugarman, J. (2017). Beyond teaching English: Supporting school completion by immigrant & refugee students. Washington, D.C.;
Migration Policy Institute.