With uncertainty surrounding DACA, and anti-immigrant rhetoric on the rise, what should educators do?

By Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, Carola Suarez-Orozco, and Adam Strom

The young people entering schools this fall are the most diverse group of student’s in the history of the nation. One-quarter of them are of immigrant origin, from nearly every country in the world. That diversity is not limited to the United States, indeed, increasing numbers of migrants and the children of migrants enter schools, around the world, eager to learn. Unfortunately, the messages they are getting from the wider world often run counter to the conditions we try to create in our classrooms. Hate speech, divisive political rhetoric, a rash of hate incidents in and around schools, combined with increased deportations of undocumented immigrants in the U.S., has many teachers and students on edge.

We’ve been hearing from young people, migrants and non-migrants alike, that many of them are afraid. In such a polarized climate, it is easy to understand. However, many immigrant children have very specific, and immediate, concerns. While there are few DACA recipients among K-12 students, there is tremendous uncertainty over the fate of many of their closest relatives including siblings, parents, grandparents, and cousins–family members who care for our students and the very people that they love. Further, in many classrooms, peers are witnessing their friends and classmates trying to navigate this turbulence.

As educators, are we aware of what our students are going through? And, what should we be doing about it? Here are a few tangible suggestions for the short and long term.

  • Schools and classrooms thrive when empathy and respect are the basic ground rules of every classroom. Schools must take proactive steps to make it clear that all students are valued. While it seems that everyone in the outside world is screaming, the classroom must be a place of listening. We recommend educators create classroom contracts with their students to clarify expectations about how members of the classroom community will treat each other. Bullying, hate, and intolerance are an anathema to the give-and-take required for students to flourish.
  • In today’s climate, many immigrant children may be reticent to speak. If you care to listen, however, you will hear narratives of resilience, grit, and optimism. We need to create space to have students share their stories. Jean Michel Dissard, the Director of the acclaimed documentary I Learn America, describes these narratives as “windows to new worlds, communities, and cultures.”
  • In schools, all too often, migrants and the children of immigration are isolated from their peers. We need to work to break down that isolation whenever and wherever possible.
  • One way to do that is for students—all students—to share their families’ experiences of migration. In the U.S., migration is both history and destiny. From the arrival of the First Nations of native peoples to European explorers seeking treasure and religious freedom to the mass involuntary migrations of enslaved Africans to the trans-oceanic migrations of yesterday and the ongoing global migration of today, migration defines the American experience. We have created a free storytelling app with guiding questions that can structure these lessons.
  • The lessons of integration are not just for new arrivals—they are equally important for children of receiving communities.  Too many projects aimed at engaging migrant youth are treated as one-off experiences and not integrated into the academic life of schools. Teaching about immigration for one or two days a year in a history class, or including an occasional reading by an immigrant author in a syllabus does not do justice to this defining dimension of the human experience. Through the histories we teach, and the literature we read, we can find ways to recognize the similarities and differences in the experience of migrant students to earlier American sagas of migration and immigration. Helping students to recognize historical patterns and discontinuities can empower them with the knowledge to counter myths and misinformation.

Beyond the day to day, administrators must recognize that teachers need support adjusting to the changing needs of their students and society, yet they often lack the training and resources they need. Providing them needs to be prioritized and we are here to help. We believe that it is essential that educators reimagine approaches to migration inside and outside of traditional school environments. Schools do not exist in isolation from the communities in which they are located or the populations they serve. We need to equip a generation of young people with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to work to build bridges between newcomers and receiving communities. This is the task of the next of our next generation — our shared future depends on it.

Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, Dean—UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, Co-Founder, Re-Imagining Migration, Carola Suárez-Orozco, Professor, UCLA, Co-Founder, Re-Imagining Migration, and Adam Strom, Re-Imagining Migration, Director, Re-Imagining Migration, https://reimaginingmigration.org/