Strategies for Supporting Immigrant Students and Families

How Immigration Issues Can Impact Students

Educators, staff, and school/district leaders may not know how issues around immigration are affecting students or colleagues. This article provides an overview of a few key areas that can impact immigrant students and staff, as well as ideas for including these topics in professional development.

These strategies are part of the Colorín Colorado resource guide, How to Support Immigrant Students and Families: Strategies for Schools and Early Childhood Programs.

We held an optional district professional development session called "Developing Resources and Supports for Immigrant Students"…I think it was an eye-opener for many who attended.  The district's Coordinator of Social Workers attended and relayed that immigration trauma and stress would be put on her agenda for the next district mental health meeting.

–  Sarah Fladwood-Handley, District Elementary ELL Coach, Topeka Public Schools, Kansas


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, were surprised to learn how much these issues were impacting their students. The following sections provide some background information on immigration issues that may affect students or staff at your school/program, as well as tips for offering professional development on these issues.

In addition, it is important to keep in mind that immigration issues can impact staff as well. Learn more from our section on social-emotional support for staff.

For more information on recent immigration policy changes and immigration impacts on students, see our strategies for keeping up with current events and policy changes, as well as 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 related section on this topic. 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.

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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. Examples include the following:

  • Unaccompanied minors who come to the U.S. to reunite with parents 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.
  • Other students may be experiencing separation from family members due to detention or deportation, or due to travel restrictions that have lengthened the separation. In some of these cases, students may have significant care-taking responsibilities for younger siblings.

At the same time, students may also be concerned about the safety of family members who have stayed in unstable, violent, or war-torn regions of their home countries.

Here are examples of real students navigating those issues, including some students who have been featured by The Washington Post:

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

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The impacts of immigration enforcement on students

Why this matters

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 nationwide (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.

It is also worth noting that thousands of people who are deported, usually men, often try to return to the U.S. each year. This journey can prove fatal, as in the case of Adrián Luna, a 45-year-old father of five who had lived in Idaho for 27 years and died deep in the desert in an attempt to come back to the U.S. following his deportation.

In addition, some undocumented sponsors of young people who have crossed the border are reluctant to come forward to take children home because of a new memorandum of understanding in which the Department of Health and Human Services is sharing sponsor information with immigration officials. This policy has led to the arrest of numerous undocumented sponsors. This is one factor impacting the increased amount of time children are in federal custody, leading to higher numbers of children in shelters and an expansion of "tent cities" where immigrant youth are housed.

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

  • loss of income 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, Iowa, as well as information about the impacts on young children in particular in our section on early childhood education.

Recommended resources

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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. At the same time, many students are navigating complex decisions about what to share or not share about their personal background, experience, and immigration status on a regular basis. (See more on this topic in our section on immigrant students' choices to remain silent about their experiences.)

How does being undocumented impact daily life?

Undocumented status (either their own or that of a family member) can impact students in the following ways:

  • fear of filling out paperwork for benefits and school services, like special education, free- and reduced-price 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)
  • restricted access to employment, medical insurance, and other benefits
  • questions of transportation, such as state driver’s licenses policies and the inability to fly without identification
  • fear of entering public buildings that require IDs, such as military bases.

Other considerations and impacts include:

Note: State-issued ID cards for undocumented immigrants are not protection against immigration enforcement.

Diverse backgrounds among undocumented immigrants

The undocumented population of the U.S. includes immigrants from around the world. Many of those individuals are advocating for more visibility in conversations about immigration. Here are some resources that highlight that diversity:

Researchers studying undocumented students

For in-depth research on immigrant students and undocumented students in particular, see the work of the following scholars:

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What is DACA?

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is a policy enacted 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." The DREAMer population is a diverse group representing countries around the world.

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 DACA works and how changes in the policy can impact families or schools. Researchers at UCLA studying the impact of immigration enforcement on schools 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 in both K-12 and early childhood settings working with DACA work permits. For more information, as well as interviews with teachers who have DACA, see our related resource section.

To learn more about DACA, you can also:

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

Recommended resources

About DACA / Resources for DREAMers

News headlines and blog posts

For news related to DACA, as well as interviews with DACA teachers, see our Colorín Colorado resource section, as well as the following:

Recommended videos

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Recommendations for professional development

Framing the conversation

One way you may wish to share information about immigration 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:

  • 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 the guidelines outlined in the Norms of Collaboration Toolkit)
  • Sharing relevant district policies and initiatives related to serving immigrant students
  • 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 [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.

Tips for getting started

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
  • talk about the ways in which immigration issues may impact staff as well as students.

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 resources

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 throughout this guide.

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See our complete reference list for works cited in this article.



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