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Immigration and Its Impact on American Schools

Lynn M. Gangone

America is a country of immigrants. Through each wave of immigration, our public schools incorporate immigrant children into the fabric of our country. Our public schools serve as a cultural incubator to aid and nurture acceptance of diversity. Our local classrooms should be a microcosm of a global demographic. We, as educators, need to harness that belief for our teachers and the students they teach and guide.

How do America’s immigration challenges impact schools?

The challenge is that there are undocumented students entering U.S. schools, colleges, and universities who were not given the option to decide for themselves whether they wanted to come to this country. They have been incorporated into society, but are affected by current practices that impact their safety and security. It is projected that by the year 2040, one in every three children in the United States will grow up in an immigrant household (Suárez-Orozco, Suárez-Orozco, & Todorova, 2008). It begs the question: How do we work with those students? 

Educators, school support staff, and service providers are often the first individuals in whom a student and/or family confides and reveals that they are undocumented. Recent efforts to identify undocumented parents and children in the United States challenge public schools in their efforts to meet the needs of all children residing within their school districts. Public schools are often embroiled in politically and legally sensitive situations, in which they must balance their responsibilities to serve immigrant and undocumented children, while meeting the expectations of local authorities to identify undocumented individuals.

What role do educators play in supporting immigrant children and their families?

This is part and parcel of the fact that the educator today has a very different student to educate than 10 or 15 years ago. Educators play a crucial role in how kids are welcomed into the classroom and within their communities overall. We have families coming into our public school system who do not understand how the system works, making the educator the bridge between the child and the family. In these instances, the role of educators is to understand how to support and encourage these students— to advance them and foster their achievement. Immigrant students must have the same opportunities to flourish as other students. Our educators must serve many roles for these students in a challenging societal environment, where many are suspicious of and hostile toward immigrants. Undocumented parents are afraid and lack resources to advocate for the educational needs of their children. Educators can serve as advocates for these students. The school system is the most important institution in the lives of undocumented immigrant children, where students’ experiences can either mimic the negative social inequalities faced outside of school or equalize them (Bruno, 2011; Morrison & Bryan, 2014).

Let’s look at the facts.

The U.S. Department of Education says all children in the United States are warranted equal access to a public elementary and secondary education, regardless of their or their parents’ actual or perceived national origin, citizenship, or immigration status. This includes recently arrived and unaccompanied children who are in immigration proceedings while residing in local communities with a parent, family member, or other appropriate adult sponsor. (U.S. Department of Education, n.d.)

What are the challenges in preparing and producing teachers for English Language Learners?

AACTE will be releasing an issue brief highlighting degree trends in high-demand teaching specialties. The Association is exploring how to address the overall teacher shortage, while also examining those critical areas of need inside the larger shortage: ESOL, special education and STEM educators. The lack of teacher candidates and teachers wanting this type of training is staggering. The latest studies are showing that we are seeing a slight increase in the number of educators with an ESOL concentration, which is good. But going from really bad, to not so bad, is simply not good enough. We tend to have curricula that is not focused on ESOL teaching and learning, and we have a nationwide shortage of preservice or in-service educators who want to prepare to teach these students in the public education environment. Teachers are forced to manage a variety of learner needs requiring specialized training and applications that have been found to be effective. Unfortunately, the untrained teacher can quickly become overwhelmed and contribute to the disconnect between learner needs and pedagogy. Research repeatedly shows basic solutions to support teaching practices that are differentiated in nature and move pedagogy from homogenous to heterogeneous based on individual student needs lead to sustainable success.

Why is it important for immigrant students to feel safe in schools?

Beyond performance in school, an indication of how well immigrant students are integrating into their new community is whether, and to what extent, they feel a sense of belonging in their new surroundings.

Social-emotional needs

Teachers across the country (whether born to undocumented parents or an immigrant themselves) have noted fears that families and friends, and occasionally they themselves, would be picked up by ICE, making it very difficult at times for students to learn and teachers to teach. According to findings from a national survey of educators from more than 730 schools across 24 districts and 12 states, 90% of school administrators observed emotional and behavioral problems among students from immigrant families. Two-thirds of respondents also reported that the fear and concern for classmates was affecting the education of students who were not targets of enforcement.


Absenteeism is another issue that affects immigrant students, as noted by 68% of administrative staff in all regions. “I have heard students say that they do not want to come to school, in case their parents are deported,” said a teacher from Texas.

How can educators advocate for federal/state policies and funding to support immigrant students?

As educators, we have a duty to ensure that every student has a chance at success and access to education. We must stress the importance of taking proactive steps to ensure the safety and well-being of children and communities.

Teachers and educational professionals can advocate for legislation for immigrant students with efforts as simple as issuing a statement. This statement should be in English and other languages spoken within the community, and should articulate that the school supports immigrant students/parents and affirms publicly that it is a welcoming environment.

Additionally, the distribution of “know your rights” materials to students, families, and communities about what to do if a raid occurs or an individual is detained is crucial to alerting them to the current climate.

More proactive measures include the following:

  • Identify a bilingual person within school settings who can serve as the immigration resource advocate in your building or on your campus.
  • Work with parents to develop a family immigration raid emergency plan.
  • Provide a safe place for students to wait if a parent or sibling has been detained.
  • Make certain counseling plans are in place for students who have had a family member detained by ICE.
  • Create strategies with school boards to pass resolutions affirming schools as welcoming places of learning for all students, distancing the schools from enforcement actions that separate families.
  • Set in motion plans to strengthen relationships with local institutions of higher education and community-based organizations that can support the needs of unaccompanied children and students with interrupted formal education.
  • Maintain a list of resources, in English and other languages spoken at the school, including names of mental health providers, social workers, pro bono attorneys, and local immigration advocates and organizations that can be shared with students and their families.
  • Partner with a pro bono attorney, legal aid organization, or immigrant rights organization to schedule “know your rights” workshops to inform students and families about their rights.
  • Research local immigration raid rapid response teams. These teams usually consist of attorneys, media personnel, and community leaders who may be able to provide support.
  • Participate in National Educators Coming Out Day, held annually on November 12, and “come out” in support of undocumented students.
  • Participate in National Institutions Coming Out Day, held annually on April 7.

How do programs like DACA help advance the educational attainment and rights of immigrant students?

When President Barack Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals initiative in 2012, the idea was to offer an American immigration policy giving relief from deportation. Its purpose is to protect eligible immigrant youth brought into the United States when they were children from being sent back to a country they have never known. The program gives these young, undocumented immigrants that deportation protection, as well as a work permit. The program expires after two years, but in some cases can be renewed. The program, however, does not offer a path to citizenship.

In September 2017, the Trump administration announced plans to gradually end the program, arguing that the establishment of DACA represented an unconstitutional overreach of Obama’s executive power, a conclusion with which many legal scholars disagree.

Since then, many lawsuits have been filed against the administration for terminating DACA unlawfully. Now, three nationwide injunctions issued by U.S. district courts (California, New York, and Washington, D.C) allow individuals with previous DACA benefits to renew their deferred action.

The Supreme Court will likely hear oral arguments on the cases this fall or winter. A decision is expected no later than June 2020. For now, DACA recipients can continue to submit applications for renewal.

AACTE is part of a coalition of higher education associations called the Washington Higher Education Secretariat. With those Supreme Court cases in mind, the coalition often files amicus briefs in support of the continuation of DACA. Amicus briefs are legal documents filed in appellate court cases by non-litigants who have a strong interest in the subject matter; in this case, the subject is the continuation of DACA benefits. The briefs advise the court of relevant information or arguments that the court may want or need to consider.

DACA students deserve every available opportunity in education. I would rather see students educated than imprisoned.  They are contributing deeply to our country as a whole.

We have students whose experience influences how they end up engaging in careers. Many of our DACA students go into areas of service like teaching, and many of them want to become immigration attorneys to help others like themselves. DACA gives these immigrant students a fighting chance to be educated.

It makes an enormous difference to see students who can take advantage of in-state tuition and other benefits of living here. Their lived experience is that of living in the United States. We want to provide them with the capacity to have an education and not be afraid that they will be deported back to a country that is foreign to them. 

These programs provide opportunity, and that is what education is all about.

 Lynn M. Gangone is the president and chief executive officer at the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE).

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Lynn M. Gangone

President and CEO, AACTE