How Schools Can Support Immigrant Students and Families

How Immigration Issues Can Impact Students

Educators, staff, and school/district leaders may not know how much issues around immigration are affecting students or colleagues. This article provides an overview of a few key areas that may have some impact on families in your district.

It is important that we respect the different viewpoints of others and not silence those opinions if channeled correctly. However, our school district has clear set of core beliefs that need to be adhered to. Most importantly, our staff must show unwavering respect and acceptance of all children regardless if they are an immigrant or not.

–  Scott Kizner, Superintendent, Harrisonburg, VA Public Schools


Helping staff understand students’ experiences can have a powerful impact on how they interact with immigrant students and families. A number of educators have noted that their colleagues, including administrators, are surprised to learn how much  immigration issues are impacting their students. 

This article provides a very brief snapshot of some of the issues that may be impacting families in your schools and community.

For more information on recent immigration policy changes and immigration impacts on students, see the following:

Note: For information on recent proposed changes to the “public charge” rules, which would make it harder for legal immigrants to get green cards if they use certain kinds of public assistance, see our information above. Although the rules have not yet taken effect, some immigrant families are withdrawing from benefit programs they currently use, which may have an impact on students’ basic needs.

Separation and reunification

Immigrant students may have complex situations in their families when it comes to separation, reunification, and the impacts of changing immigration policies. For example, many youth who come to the U.S. to reunite with parents as unaccompanied minors may not have seen those parents for many years and may have new siblings in the U.S. that they are meeting for the first time.

Here are some examples of real students navigating those issues (some names have been changed):

  • Alex, a young man being cared for by his 18-year-old sister after his mother was detained in a raid in Ohio
  • Jafet and Jeshua, teenagers who traveled from Guatemala to live with their mother after being separated for 13 years, leaving a younger sister behind
  • Steve, a 10-year-old living with his father in Northern Virginia after his mother was deported to El Salvador, moving back with his 5-year-old sister
  • Hana, a middle school student in Michigan from Yemen whose mother has been awaiting a visa to the U.S. in Oman and was recently sent back to Yemen with instructions to return to in Oman in 6 months

The impacts of immigration enforcement on students

Why This Matters

As noted in in our introduction, there are 4.5 million children with at least one parent who is undocumented; 1.6 million of those children are under the age of 5 and a high percentage of those children were born in the U.S. and are therefore U.S. citizens. In California alone, nearly two million children live in “mixed-status” households, and one in eight students have at least one undocumented parent. Researchers at UCLA estimate that immigration enforcement policies have the potential to impact more than 5 million children (Gándara & Ee, 2018a, p. 3).

Immigration enforcement activity can result in a variety of outcomes, including:

  • detention in U.S. facility
  • deportation to another country
  • large raids
  • arrests of other undocumented people nearby
  • extended separations between family members.

All of these outcomes have long-lasting emotional, economic, and practical effects on students and families. The UCLA research team shares the following anecdotes from a teacher in Maryland and another in California.

 We have one student who had attempted to slit her wrists because her family has been separated and she wants to be with her mother. She literally didn't want to live without her mother (2018a, pp. 1-2).

I had one student who came back the day after prom and would not eat or talk to anyone. I finally found out from one of her friends that she came home from prom to find her mom deported and never had the chance to say good-bye or anything. She was suffering but did not know what to do (2018a, p.3).

Some of the documented impacts of separation, detention, and deportation include:


  • increased fear, anxiety, and depression
  • lack of motivation and interest in school
  • uncertainty about the future in terms of where the student will live and go to school
  • post-traumatic stress

Economic Uncertainty

  • economic uncertainty and instability
  • an increase in transiency as families relocate, go into hiding, or move to join loved ones
  • reduced access (voluntary or involuntary) to social services and benefits

Care-Taking Arrangements

  • possible transfer of the child into foster care
  • an increase in responsibilities (or preparation for that increase) for older siblings as caretakers, breadwinners, and coordinators of logistics or family affairs

School/Community Impact

The UCLA team confirmed what other educators have reported, which is that immigration enforcement can have a wide-spread effect on non-immigrant students as well, including an increase in concern, anxiety, grief, and anger over the loss of a friend who may disappear. One teacher notes,

I have already had several students who have parents who have been deported to Mexico and India.  One of our students skipped school for 3 weeks when a teacher brought up the topic of immigration in class.  Last year I had students missing class to attend their parent's immigration court hearings.  All of this is wearing on my students and is causing anxiety and depression (p. 14).

(You can read more about the broader school and community impacts of this enforcement in our article about massive immigration raids in Postville, IA.)

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Being undocumented


Many educators may not know that some of their students are undocumented, or what implications being undocumented has. In fact, teacher Lori Dodson notes that many students themselves don't know they are undocumented and don't learn of their status until high school when they apply for a driver's license, a first job, or college.

The daily experiences of being undocumented include:

Daily impacts of being undocumented

  • restricted access to employment, medical insurance, and other benefits
  • questions of transportation, like different state driver's licenses policies and the inability to travel by plane
  • fear of entering public buildings that require IDs, such as military bases
  • fear of filling out paperwork for benefits and school services, like special education, free- and reduced lunch, and financial aid (Gándara and Ee, 2018a)
  • missing out on field trips and extra-curricular activities due to the paperwork or fear of being out in the community after school hours (Gándara and Ee, 2018a)

Other considerations & impacts

Note: Some states have issued official identification cards for undocumented immigrants; however, these are not protection against immigration enforcement.

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What is DACA?

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is a policy passed during the Obama Administration through executive action in 2012 focused on undocumented youth who have lived in the U.S. since childhood, often referred to as "Dreamers". DREAM Act legislation has been introduced multiple times to address their situation but has not yet successfully made it through Congress. 

This summary from NPR provides a helpful overview:

DACA is the acronym for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program created in 2012 by the Obama administration allowing young people brought to this country illegally by their parents to get a temporary reprieve from deportation and to receive permission to work, study, and obtain driver's licenses.

DACA applicants had to be younger than 31 years old when the program began. They also had to prove that they had lived in the United States continuously since June 15, 2007, and that they had arrived in the U.S. before the age of 16.

Those signing up for DACA must show that they have clean criminal records. They have to be enrolled in high school or college, or serve in the military. Their status is renewable every two years.

As of this writing, court cases related to DACA are proceeding, DACA still stands and recipients can continue to renew; however, new applications are not being accepted.

Why This Matters

Many educators may not understand how Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) works and how changes in the policy can impact families. The UCLA research team found that "many educators appeared to be confused about" DACA -- what it is, who qualifies, and what the current status of the program is (p. 22). Changes in DACA would impact not only the children of DACA recipients but thousands of teachers working with DACA work permits. For more information, as well as interviews with teachers who have DACA, see our related resource section.

If you would like to learn more about DACA, you can get started by:

  • looking for networks online to find out what other educators are sharing and discussing
  • looking for colleagues or community members who can speak about its impact on students and families, such as college-level DREAM organizations

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Recommendations for professional development

One way you may wish to share this information with colleagues is through professional development. Given the polarizing nature of this topic, we recommend that skilled, experienced trainers in this topic lead these conversations. It may be helpful to start a conversation on immigration by:

  1. Reminding colleagues to show respect for differing opinions (this is especially effective if all staff members are familiar with the same norms for discussion and teamwork, such as this Norms of Collaboration Toolkit)
  2. Sharing relevant district policies and initiatives related to serving immigrant students
  3. Sharing the following quotes for discussion or reference:

As we discussed our district support, we recognized that the heart of the matter was keeping students safe and supporting their continued learning.  This meant that we needed to measure our actions by how they related to supporting the students’ learning and social-emotional well-being.  This has been helpful in empowering leaders as they make decisions in response to new situations.

It is important that we respect the different viewpoints of others and not silence those opinions if channeled correctly. However, our school division has clear set of core beliefs that need to be adhered to. Most importantly, our staff must show unwavering respect and acceptance of all children regardless if they are an immigrant or not.

If planning professional development on these topics, educators and administrators should think about how to:

  • identify the most important topics for your context
  • establish your goals for training and how it will allow colleagues to better serve students
  • establish a climate of respect and trust
  • address myths or misconceptions as needed
  • help staff understand students’ rights and staff members' obligations to protect student privacy
  • take the information provided and use it to improve students’ experiences at the school
  • share culturally responsive ways to address these issues
  • be responsive to situations as they arise (rather than waiting too long to address them before they become critical)

  • connect to existing districtwide programs.

Discussion questions

These questions may provide some useful entry points into discussion:

  • How do you think these experiences might impact students in the classroom and in their social-emotional health?
  • What information was new to you, or surprised you?
  • What can you do as an educator to support students who have had these experiences?

Recommended Videos

Consider using the video "The danger of a single story" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to open up discussion, as well as recommended videos above.




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