Check Out These Creative Initiatives Standing Up for Immigrant Students – Next100
Commentary   Immigration

Check Out These Creative Initiatives Standing Up for Immigrant Students

Amidst this ongoing crisis for students within immigrant communities, responses that create safety and support for them and their families are more important than ever. Here are several organizations with creative solutions that school administrators should emulate.

Since the start of the 2016 election season, our nation has seen an unprecedented attack on communities of color. When it comes to immigrants of color in particular, entire populations have been painted by the current administration as a monolith of violent criminals who take from society without contributing, which is simply (and obviously) false. The hateful rhetoric has sought to dehumanize immigrants and has been underlined with violent policy changes, including the chilling effects of attempted changes to the “public charge” rule, a regulation meant to destabilize our communities. The xenophobia that both fuels and feeds off of that rhetoric has to be interrupted. Not only does it negatively impact the foreign-born population, it also wreaks havoc on mixed-status immigrant families, including millions of U.S.-born children. As hard as it hits them at home, it also hurts them in the schools they attend—which are, ironically, the institutions most meant to educate and elevate the United States and those who live within its borders as leaders in a globalized and interconnected world.

Thankfully, people are not standing idly by. Many individuals and organizations have stepped forth with creative solutions for supporting immigrant communities regardless of immigration status, and they are using schools and other educational environments as places to push back on the hate and foster safety, mutual support, and empathetic understanding. Undocumented immigrant students and U.S.-citizen students in mixed status families—who may have a parent, or both parents, who are undocumented immigrants—all deserve equal access to our education system; and they deserve just as much for their educational environments to be affirming, stable, and secure. In what follows, I will highlight just some of the many actors in the field who are working hard to make these rights a reality.

The organizations and efforts highlighted below are all immigrant-led, because who better to understand the multiplicity of voices, complexity of needs, and urgency to uplift our voices and humanity than our community itself? They are setting examples of how to boldly move forward on immigration issues within the realm of education. Education administrators should take note, and scale similar initiatives within their own schools and districts.

Early Childhood: Leveraging Trusting Relationships

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) have been found to be especially impactful on a child’s development when experienced in early childhood, having consequences on lifelong outcomes, including in health and education. The current administration has shown a complete disregard for how anti-immigrant policies create and intensify ACEs for children of immigrants: its policies seem all but designed to fabricate the conditions for some of the most commonly known ACEs, including generating family separation by incarcerating parents in detention centers and/or deporting them; exposing children to prolonged poverty by limiting household income and safety nets through unsuccessful attempts at “public charge” changes, detention, and deportation; and, for the children who’ve sought entry and refuge in the United States by crossing the southern U.S. border, abuse at the hands of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), occurring most notoriously through the dehumanizing practice of housing children in filthy cages.

ACEs wreak more havoc on a child’s health the earlier in their life the child endures them; and so responses to these policies in early education environments are absolutely critical. One organization that’s responded effectively is the Chinese-American Planning Council (CPC), a social services organization in New York City which provides family support centers and preschool centers to the members of its community. In its preschool work, CPC has stepped forth to provide guidance to its preschool educators who are serving immigrant families.

As the nation’s largest Asian American social services organization, CPC is rooted in community, working with 60,000 individuals and families across New York City. Their values state, “We are our community. We embrace our community. We empower our community.” In seeking to ensure that their community has access to the resources necessary to thrive, their efforts in early childhood centers demonstrate they recognize and have invested in ensuring the youngest members of their community are well cared for by providing necessary and accurate information and resources to their parents. In particular, CPC ensures that their preschool center staff are prepared to deal with immigration agents, that they are well-informed about their community’s makeup and needs, and that they have the most current and correct information pertaining to immigration issues to share with families of their students. CPC’s families trust these educators: parents are able to confidently communicate in their own languages with them, and CPC is actively working to build safe spaces in preschools for all. In general, when organizations refer families to outside resources, those families may not follow up because the relationship of trust is missing.

Furthermore, CPC’s entire staff, not just the educators at their preschools, is trained on issues around immigration through a “train the trainer” model. CPC brings together staff from different centers to not only share technical information but also best practices specific to CPC’s community; then those staff will go back and guide their coworkers through “know your rights” (KYR) trainings. This ensures the entire community they serve is met with knowledgeable staff.

CPC’s initiative within preschools can serve to buffer “toxic stress”—the trauma that is incurred from ACEs and other prolonged dangerous and destabilizing experiences—for young children by ensuring that their families know how to access the necessary services their children need to thrive. Their work effectively serves to expand and strengthen the buffers of supportive and protective relationships with adults that children need to build resilience amidst adverse experiences by ensuring adults know who to trust and are not dealing with the negative impacts of current immigration policy and rhetoric in isolation.

CPC’s early childhood program also has a designated protocol in case immigration agents ever show up at any of their centers. As active members of the Protecting Immigrant Families Campaign, CPC is privy to important resources for supporting immigrant families. As a social services organization with limited capacity to produce their own resources around ensuring safe spaces in preschools, such resources prove invaluable. The “safe space” guidelines created by the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) allowed CPC to quickly implement safe spaces within their preschools. CLASP developed these resources after hearing from early childhood centers throughout the United States, and through their feedback recognizing the dire need to create the guidelines.

As pointed out by CLASP’s multi-state study of early childhood educators and families, the needs arising for immigrant families and children within early childhood education are not contained to New York City. Across Pennsylvania, North Carolina, California, Georgia, Illinois, and New Mexico, young children are scared that their parents will be taken away; their routines and access to nutrition and health services are interrupted because their families are scared of accessing services; their housing and economic stability is in chaos; and their parents are under severe stress. More early education programs need to take heed of CPC’s initiative and proactively support their immigrant families.

How the Trump Administration Is Constructing Toxic Stress for the Children of Immigrants 
Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that create toxic stress Immigration practices perpetuating harm and generating ACEs 
Constant exposure to economic hardship Limiting household income and safety nets through unsuccessful attempts at “public charge” changes, mass raids, detentions, and deportations.                    
Separation from a parent or guardian  “Zero-tolerance” family separation policy, mass raids, targeting immigrant families and communities for detention and deportation
Exposure to abuse and neglect For unaccompanied children crossing the southern border, there’s been a documented violation of human rights; an attack on the Flores agreement, wherein CBP is seeking to hold children indefinitely; and the dehumanizing practice of housing children in filthy cages. When  a parent is detained and/or deported, the impact on their children is an afterthought, leaving children without parents.
* Exposure to four or more ACEs is linked to negative impacts on health and behavior.

K–12: Proactively Incorporating Best Practices

It’s not just early childhood centers that have felt the impact of anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy: K–12 school districts nationwide are experiencing their consequences too, with 68 percent of administrators reporting absenteeism amongst immigrant students as a problem and 90 percent of educators noting a negative impact on students’ moods and behavior since the 2016 presidential election. Research from the UCLA Civil Rights Project highlights how on top of generating anxiety and trauma for children of immigrant backgrounds, the policies that are separating families have also impacted teachers.

Under Plyler v. Doe, a 1982 Supreme Court decision, all school-aged children have a right to public K–12 education in the United States, regardless of immigration status. And yet as the research discussed above demonstrates, current policy and lack of adequate training for educators can threaten that right, especially when school staff and education administrators at the highest level are not educated about it.

ImmSchools directly responds to this threat to the education of children of immigrant backgrounds, as well as proactively working to improve educational opportunities for these children. Working in Texas and New York, the organization partners with local schools and school districts and with community-based organizations to deliver high-quality professional development trainings and resources for educators on supporting immigrant students. These trainings go beyond informing educators on the right to education of immigrant children or establishing protocol for dealing with immigration agencies: they also include equipping educators with best practices for creating supportive school environments and addressing mental-health needs of children of immigrant backgrounds. In their first year of operation, they supported close to 1,000 immigrant students and families, as well as 950 educators and support staff. 96 percent of educators who have gone through their trainings reported an increased ability to support undocumented students and families as a result of their trainings.

ImmSchools was founded by two formerly undocumented women, both of whom have experience as educators, and as their team has expanded, they continue to bring in people grounded in the lived immigrant experience. Another part of their work is facilitating community-centered workshops, which hold a space for the voice of the undocumented immigrant community. The theme of each workshop is determined by community conversations to identify and respond to that community’s most pressing needs. Their practices show a deep investment in community as the most powerful driver and agent of change.

Public school districts don’t need to wait to be approached by an organization like ImmSchools: they can take more proactive efforts on their own in thinking about the challenges currently faced by students of immigrant backgrounds. Administrators should arm the educators with whom they work with best practices for creating supportive environments through professional development. Doing so will not just benefit students: it will positively impact educators as well.

Higher Education: Cultivating Empowering Spaces

Undocumented students have long felt and dealt with the structural barriers to higher education imposed upon them. While Plyler v. Doe guarantees a right to a public education for children regardless of immigration status, this right does not extend beyond high school. As such, while conditions vary depending on their state of residence, those conditions are nearly always restrictive. At the most extreme, immigrant students may be barred altogether from enrolling in a public university within their state. Most commonly, they will be faced with international student fees and out-of state tuition, found to average twice the expense of in-state tuition, all while being barred from applying for federal financial aid. Only seven states, including California, Colorado, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, and Washington State, allow undocumented students access to in-state financial aid.

Even once the financial and policy barriers to enrolling in higher education have been surmounted, students who do enroll can have no assurance that they’ll be able to complete their degrees. Chief among the challenges of many undocumented students is maintaining their DACA status under an administration dead-set on eliminating the program. According to the 2015 report In the Shadows of the Ivory Tower by the UndocuScholars Project, over 85 percent of students designated as protected under former president Obama’s 2012 “deferred action for childhood arrivals” (DACA) executive order—in other words, DACA-mented students—reported a positive impact on their education due to their DACA status. DACA is a renewable two-year protection from deportation that makes recipients eligible for a work permit. Undocumented youth must meet stringent qualifications to apply. Beyond creating the opportunity for DACA recipients to legally work, DACA also made recipients eligible for drivers’ licenses and prompted accompanying policies from certain states around affordable higher education, thus granting access to necessary resources to pay for and participate in the college experience. However, since the 2017 attempt to rescind DACA, there has been tremendous uncertainty for DACA-mented youth about the continuation of the program and their futures in the United States.

To respond to the needs of undocumented students within universities, some campuses have chosen to create undocumented student resource centers. According to the Undocumented Student Resources Centers Research Project (USRCRP), fifty-eight such centers exist throughout the United States as of February 2019, with the majority being at California community colleges. These centers seek to provide a plethora of resources for undocumented college students, including academic advising, counseling, financial aid resources, career counseling, transfer services, legal services, undocu-ally training, and lending libraries and book vouchers, amongst a host of other resources and programming.

USRCRP’s map does not yet reflect the new John Jay Immigrant Student Success Center in New York, which is singular enough to receive individual attention. With the vision of cultivating an empowering space for undocumented students on John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s campus, the center is building a sense of community amongst students and generating greater advocacy amongst students of immigrant backgrounds for successfully navigating not just John Jay, but also life beyond undergraduate studies, whether that includes graduate school or launching into careers. The center’s manager is formerly undocumented, and the rest of the staff are current students at or recent graduates of John Jay. At their recent inaugural breakfast, the voices of the students involved at the center were highlighted, and they spoke repeatedly of the opportunities for leadership and self-advocacy generated by the center’s structure and management.

Beyond the impact being felt at John Jay, their Immigrant Student Resource Center is empowering other campuses. It has set a model and precedent for best practices in supporting undocumented college students that can be replicated across CUNY and SUNY. Brooklyn College quickly followed suit, opening their own Immigrant Student Success Office this fall.

Benefiting Our Entire Society

The organizations profiled above, working across multiple sectors of education, understand that a well-educated society inclusive of all serves to strengthen us as a nation, and that right now, getting there means centering the needs of immigrant students and their families. With one in four children in the United States having at least one foreign-born parent, the well-being of these children is inextricably linked to the future of the United States—and the efforts of these education-intersecting organizations are leading the way in painting a more promising future for our entire society.

With one in four children in the United States having at least one foreign-born parent, the well-being of these children is inextricably linked to the future of the United States—and the efforts of these education-intersecting organizations are leading the way in painting a more promising future for our entire society.

While this handful of examples of existing initiatives is far from a comprehensive list of the many initiatives that exist, the research is clear that neither immigrant families and students nor educators feel sufficiently supported in responding to the anti-immigrant climate propagated by the current presidential administration. Schools are responsible for educating all students, but under current circumstances, learning can be especially hard for some. School administrators must take a closer look at how they can do more, and they can start by listening to their community’s needs and learning from great immigrant-led examples.


About the Author

Portrait of Rosario Villarreal, she has straight black hair, tortoise shell glasses, and a wide smile.
Rosario Quiroz Villarreal Education + Early Years

Rosario Quiroz Villarreal is an advocate for immigrants and students. Growing up as an undocumented immigrant, Rosario understood that her parents made sacrifices in moving to a new country in order to secure better opportunities for the future. At Next100, Rosario focuses on protecting the rights and access to education of immigrant students, creating more culturally inclusive classrooms, and interrupting the school-to-prison pipeline.

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