Undocumented Students and Students with Undocumented Family Members in the Classroom

In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plyler v. Doe that states cannot deny children a public K–12 education based on their immigration status. Despite periodic attempts to sidestep or undermine the ruling, this case continues to ensure that undocumented students are entitled to equal access to education.

Implicit in that ruling is the promise of education—the notion that learning creates opportunities for healthier, more productive, and more secure lives. But how do educators ensure that they are meeting the needs of all their students, helping them all make progress toward achieving successful futures?

With estimates suggesting there are over 1 million undocumented students in American classrooms and over 5 million students with at least one undocumented parent, the issue of undocumented immigration is one that teachers across the country must contend with in a significant way.

Students who have recently arrived may experience hurdles with acclimation and adjustment in their new communities, and, for those living in households where languages other than English are predominantly spoken, there can be challenges keeping up with native English-speaking classmates1. Further, these children and their parents can suffer from debilitating anxiety fearing a parent or sibling’s deportation.

Given these and other challenges, it is important for teachers to understand the challenges their students face, the opportunities that are available to them2, and to have access to resources that address their students’ needs. Given the prevalence of news coverage, misinformation, and political discord surrounding immigrants, teachers may want to utilize resources that help build empathy in their classrooms and counter prevalent stereotypes and myths about immigration.

Beyond the challenges presented by undocumented students, however, teachers should also be aware of the learning opportunities available for all of their students by having immigrant and refugee youth in class, specifically the opportunity to implement a transnational curriculum3 that uses diversity as a learning opportunity, engages translanguaging skills, promotes civic engagement, and cultivates the voices and perspectives of all students to create a greater appreciation for diversity of experience and cross-cultural learning.

  1. Diette, Timothy M., and Ruth Uwaifo Oylere. “Do Limited English Students Jeopardize the Education of Other Students? Lessons from the North Carolina Public School System.” Education Economics 25, no. 5 (2017): 446–61.
  2. It is important for teachers to know that undocumented students can go to college. They cannot be awarded federal aid, but the majority will qualify for in-state tuition rates at state-run schools in nearly every U.S. state. At least six states allow undocumented students to receive state financial aid, and there are other sources of support available to these students including institutional aid and private and foundation grants.
  3. Bajaj, Monisha, and Lesley Bartlett. “Critical Transnational Curriculum for Immigrant and Refugee Students.” Curriculum Inquiry 47, no. 1 (2017): 25–35.

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