Immigrant Students: Educators Can Help

Photos by Kim Sanford

There is no question that home raids, deportations and family separations hurt our immigrant and undocumented students.  The trauma negatively impacts their emotions, academic performance, attendance and behavior, say educators.

In 2018 the UCLA Civil Rights Project surveyed staff in 730 U.S. public schools and found that  90 percent of administrators noted increased behavioral and emotional problems among immigrant students; 70 percent reported an academic decline and increased absenteeism.

In addition, a decreased desire to go to college was reported among older immigrant students. Many say they are giving up hope, and think it no longer matters if they do well in school. The recent stepped-up activity by ICE enforcement agents has only exacerbated the problem.

While California is a sanctuary state and schools have declared themselves safe havens, many students are too frightened to trust school employees due to fear of being reported to authorities, the study reports.

Educators are doing their best to support these students and keep them focused on learning.

Jenny Medal

One is Jenny Medal, a paraeducator who works with newcomers at San Francisco International High School. “It’s sad when these students cry and say they feel so alone,” Medal says. “Some don’t say anything and just sit in a corner. Some show their trauma by acting out and being disrespectful. There are so many different ways of expressing trauma.”

She encourages students to talk with mental health counselors in the school’s Wellness Center and tells them that those who need counseling are not crazy — instead, they need support.

“I let them know it’s OK to feel sad, and that they need to honor their feelings, and that people will support them and listen to them. It’s OK to grieve for a missing brother or their father who has passed away. But they also need to move forward, so I push school as their best path to a future. We let them know school has resources for them to succeed.”

When students goof off or miss school, punishment isn’t the best approach, says Medal, a member of United Educators of San Francisco.

“Instead we ask, ‘What do you need?’ We encourage students to take language support classes and also regular classes. We build relationships with them. We let them know school is a ‘No Judgment Zone.’”

Medal wants students to advocate for themselves instead of being passive, and suggests they keep a journal about their experiences, feelings and goals so they feel in control of their lives. Below are other tips from educators and students:

  • Let students know they are welcome in your class (find downloadable posters at cta.org/forallstudents).
  • Build relationships with students; let them know you are an advocate for them and believe in them.
  • Bring in alumni who faced similar challenges and became success stories.
  • Don’t ask students about their immigration status. Instead, inform all students about resources that provide health care, counseling, legal services, etc.
  • Hold college planning and “Know Your Rights” workshops. Work with your chapter and school to provide resources.
  • If you have students enrolled in DACA, encourage them to reapply early as a precaution.
  • Schedule college tours. Explain that California offers undocumented students in-state tuition through AB 540 and the California DREAM Act provides state grants.
  • Share high expectations and encourage challenging classes.
  • Encourage participation in sports and clubs, living in the moment, and deep breathing.
  • Offer hope for the future. No one can predict what will happen.
  • Check in with students individually on a regular basis to see how they are doing.
  • Convey that their voice matters. Encourage letters to legislators or peaceful civic engagement.


Special Report: Teaching Through Trauma

This is part of our series that looks at how educators are handling students with trauma. Read more:

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