Overview: Migration and Binational Schooling

An American and a Mexican flag in a flas stand.

This article is part of a toolkit Colorín Colorado produced in collaboration with Dr. Sarah Gallo entitled Helping Immigrant Families Navigate Migration Decisions and Schooling in a Different Country.

Schools play a unique role in providing support and information for immigrant students and families, many of whom are English language learners. Regardless of their own immigration status (or that of their parents), all K-12 children have a right to access a free public education across the country – a right established by the Supreme Court Case Plyler vs. Doe.

Many people are working across the country to ensure that all children exercise that right nationwide, as well as to support children in immigrant families who are facing great uncertainty through the following activities:

  • ensuring that families understand their own rights and their children’s rights
  • helping families connect with important services, they need such as legal assistance or help in meeting basic needs
  • providing social-emotional support for students
  • ensuring that all staff at the school understand immigrant students’ rights and appropriate policies related to immigration status and privacy

[You can learn more about the ways schools support immigrant students from our Colorín Colorado resource section on this topic.]

A Complex Set of Decisions

In addition to providing these kinds of supports, many educators are being approached by families who are considering a complex set of decisions: whether to stay in the U.S., where they may have lived for many years, or to return to their home countries. The choices that mixed-status immigrant families who are considering a return to their home country face include:

  • staying and keeping children enrolled in U.S. schools with which they are familiar, while risking the possibility that an undocumented parent, sibling, or relative may be deported
  • making arrangements for the child to stay with a relative or other guardian to continue schooling while the undocumented parent or caretaker returns to the home country
  • making a proactive decision to return to a country that the child may have never visited and whose language the child may not have used in an academic setting, but where family members who might have been deported, and an extended family network, may be accessible and available.

These questions are particularly complicated for mixed-status families in which at least one member of the family is undocumented, or in the cases of families facing policy changes that will impact their immigration status if they have participated in programs such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Temporary Protected Status (TPS). Millions of children across the country live in a mixed-status family and the majority of these children are U.S. citizens themselves – who, as noted above, have a right to a free, public K-12 education. Since education can be a major factor in immigrant families’ decisions regarding their own migration, teachers and administrators are often being included in families’ conversations about their children’s futures and in some cases being asked for guidance around these choices.

For educators who are approached with these kinds of questions, it can be helpful to have a good understanding of the issues and considerations that can impact families making these decisions. In addition, there are resources and recommendations that can help ease the transition of families who do decide to return to their home country – although it is not appropriate for educators to encourage families to make a certain choice. Educators should carefully consider how they communicate about these issues so that their conversations are not construed as encouragement to make one decision or another. Each family’s situation is unique and families may also be considering factors that they are not sharing publicly.

Toolkit Overview

In order to address the challenges of integrating students into a wholly different education system and some of the things to be considered, we have prepared a practical toolkit with Dr. Sarah Gallo, who has been studying the issues, choices, and implications for children who have returned to one of the countries most directly impacted by these policy changes, Mexico.

This toolkit includes:

  • “Overview: Migration and Binational Schooling,” an article detailing:
  • ◦ Challenges and opportunities for students of all ages who study in two countries
    ◦ Considerations that can impact families’ decisions
    ◦ Recommendations for schools in communicating with families
    ◦ Steps that schools can take to support families who return to their home countries
  • Tips for parents in both English and Spanish
  • A sample letter (Word | PDF) that schools can use to report on student records in English and Spanish, along with guidance on providing such a letter
  • A flier detailing information that parents need about Mexican documents in both English and Spanish

Examples and quotations from families interviewed by Dr. Gallo are included throughout this document. Please feel free share this toolkit with colleagues at the school, district, state, and national level.

Note: While the information is specific to Mexico, many of the recommendations and even forms could be adapted to serve other countries, in consultation with educators who know the educational systems of those countries well. Educators who wish to share information related to schooling in other countries are welcome to contact Dr. Gallo at slipinog (at) gmail.com.

Overview: Migration and Binational Schooling

Although migration between the United States and Mexico is often assumed to move from South to North, or from Mexico to the United States, this has shifted over the past decade. Indeed, since 2009, it is estimated that net migration between the two countries showed a million more people moving South, from the United States to Mexico (Pew Hispanic Center, 2015). It is estimated that at least 500,000 children with U.S. schooling experiences are now enrolled in Mexican schools (Gándara, 2016). Most of these children are U.S.-born citizens with Mexican-born parents who have moved to Mexico for an array of reasons: heightened deportation policies during the past decade, the economic recession in the U.S., or wanting to reunite with family.

In light of changing immigration policies, such as an expansion of deportation priorities to include all undocumented immigrants, the uncertain future of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and recent announcements regarding Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for immigrants from a number of countries, undocumented and mixed-status families will increasingly face difficult decisions regarding repatriation.

Educators across the U.S. are working with students impacted by these policies: there are an estimated 5.5 million children in U.S. public schools with at least one family member who does not have official U.S. documentation and over 80 percent of these children are U.S. citizens themselves (Passel & Cohn, 2011). For many families, education is at the heart of their migration decisions. Many caregivers ask, “What will happen to my children who have gone to school in the U.S., and often only in English, if they enroll in school in our home country?”

These resources are designed to provide a toolkit for U.S. educators looking to support immigrant families as they navigate these difficult decisions. Educators can play an important role in talking through various considerations and implications of a family’s decision and provide resources that can be helpful to families regardless of their decisions. However, the goal of this toolkit is not to encourage families to make a certain choice. I strongly advise educators to consider how they communicate about these issues carefully so that their conversations are not construed as encouragement to make one decision or another. Each family’s situation is unique and families may be considering factors that they are not sharing publicly.

Although these materials focus specifically on the students we share between the United States and Mexico, they can be adapted to work with families from an array of countries as they face difficult decisions regarding family migration and schooling.

Students Who Study in Two Countries

Binational students are young people who have lived and learned in more than one country. There is no agreed upon or perfect term, as many of these students are not “repatriating” or “returning” to a country they have ever lived in – most of them are arriving to their parents’ home country for the first time. By calling students binational, I seek to highlight the ways that they belong to more than one country and must navigate schooling across two uncoordinated national education systems that may not recognize the range or knowledges they bring to their new schools. As students in our U.S. classrooms today, this toolkit provides resources for administrators and educators to proactively support their students’ educational success across our national borders.

Binational students I know are almost always part of mixed-status families in which some members have official U.S. papers, and some do not. Over three-quarters of these children are U.S. citizens, but they live with the daily possibility that their loved ones may be stopped, deported, and removed from the U.S. If a family member is deported, it is common for children to become withdrawn, sad, and visibly stressed (see Brabeck et al., 2011 or Gallo, 2017). It is important to note that although deportations are a leading motive for families’ repatriation, many children also move for other reasons; perhaps their parents need to care for a grandparent who is at the end of their life, or their parents choose to raise their children in a place that offers more freedom without the fear of deportation in the U.S.

Due to the increased costs and risks of re-crossing the border, an undocumented family member’s visit to Mexico for any reason often leads to their family’s relocation in Mexico, and enrollment in Mexican schools for their children. Families navigate these decisions with great care and look for ways to best support their children and their education. Although a deportation or family illness in Mexico may mean that families return with limited time to prepare, most families try to plan their return during the major school breaks in the summer or winter. This toolkit is meant as a way for U.S. educators to work with immigrant families to prepare for enrollment in Mexican schools if they decide to return at some point in the future.

Parent voices

The following quote from a mother who returned to Mexico highlights the complexities of these decisions:

“Six months after my husband’s deportation, I came back to Mexico. I said to myself, ‘OK. If I stay in the U.S., it will be a better life for my kids. They won’t suffer. I’ll work. They were going to get ahead. But they’re not going to be with their dad.’ And I thought that nowadays kids do have the right to be with both parents. Just as much their dad as their mom…And my own mom was also alone in Mexico…She didn’t have any of her kids in Mexico with her. No one. All of us were in the U.S. On Mother’s Day – there were six of us siblings and we all used to send our mom money from the U.S. But on Mother’s Day she said, ‘What good does sending me money do if no one can come and give me a hug? This is what I want.’ And so because of this, and because my husband was already there, I decided it was better for me to go. This way we could all be together.”

- Liliana, Returnee mother with 3 binational children

How to Begin the Conversation

For many educators, one of the most difficult things is figuring out how to begin a conversation with immigrant families about migration decisions and schooling in ways that signal support. Plyler v. Doe (1982) is the Supreme Court Case that guarantees free public schooling to all K-12 students regardless of their or their family’s immigration status. As a measure to protect students form discriminatory practices, Plyler also makes clear that educators and school officials can never ask students or families about their immigration status. In addition, all families are protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) regardless of immigration status. Thus, figuring out how to productively broach this conversation with immigrant families is delicate and important. Below I outline a few ideas on how to do this.

Don’t ask about documentation status

You can talk about migration and binational schooling, but you should not ask families or students what their documentation status is. While families may share information about their immigration status with others, schools should not request or share any information related to immigration status. Some teachers worry that, like mandated reporting for criminal offenses, they are supposed to report undocumented status. This is not true. In fact, schools are meant to be safe spaces in which students cannot be deterred from accessing their right to public schooling. Requesting, sharing, or reporting a family’s documentation status could do that, so you should never share it with others.

Regularly signal your support for immigrant students

Many students and families share these important life and educational decisions with educators they feel they can trust. As members of undocumented families, they are often attuned to who signals their support of immigrant students and who appears to care about them and their well-being. With this in mind, a big part of engaging in a supportive conversation about migration and schooling requires building a relationship with students, and by extension their families, in which they feel they will not be discriminated against due to their family’s immigration status. Here are some ways to signal your support of students from immigrant families:

  • Include undocumented status as a form of difference that merits equitable treatment in your classroom. Any time you engage in conversations with students that it is not okay to discriminate against others due to their race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, or other form of social difference, include immigration status. If you have signs in your classroom that name how hate is not permitted or conversations regarding different kinds of bullying, include immigration status as well. You do not have to have separate conversations about immigration status to signal this.
  • Look to integrate topics related to immigration into your curriculum. This might entail including DACA as a current event, integrating children’s literature and classroom resources that touches upon these themes such as books by Duncan Tonatiuh or these recommended ideas from Colorín Colorado, or offering writing opportunities where students can reflect upon their immigration experiences.
  • Work with like-minded educators or community organizations to offer school-based resources for immigrant families, such as advertising or organizing Know Your Rights Workshops. (For additional information, see the American Federation of Teachers’ resources on this topic, as well as Colorín Colorado’s related resource section.)
  • Don’t single students out publicly. You can signal your support to all of your students and invite them to share in these resources without having to disclose their immigration experiences to you or others.

How to Frame the Conversation

Families may consider moving back to their home country for many different kinds of reasons and you want to offer support and resources so that they can prepare to enroll their children in schools in their home country if or when they decide to move there. It is very important to avoid giving them the impression that you are sharing these materials because you want them to leave. You want to make clear that they are part of your classroom and school community, and you are talking to them about this as a potential resource, if they are interested. These materials should only be used in contexts where educators are looking to support immigrant families.

It is also useful to be intentional about where you begin this conversation. For example, you might share these materials with each family (regardless of immigration background) at parent-teacher conferences and include a way for them to follow up with you, or attend a larger event that addresses these questions, if they are interested. You want to share the resources widely and then place the decision to talk more about this in families’ hands. You also want to provide a method of contact in which they do not have to decide in the moment or show their interest in front of others.

Note: If you are already holding events addressing immigrant families’ questions and concerns, consider hosting an event focusing on this topic or including this topic as one of a list of topics addressed. If presenting this information publicly, preface it by saying something along the following lines: “Our goal is not to encourage you to make one decision or another. Instead, we want to make sure you have as much information as possible to make the best decision for you and your family.”

Challenges, Experiences, and Opportunities that Binational Students Face

Despite their robust and increasing numbers, binational students are a largely invisible schooling population in Mexico and there currently is no federal plan from the Mexican government for educating recently arrived binational students in Mexican schools.


One of the greatest challenges that families initially face is access to public schools. Although this is a guaranteed right in theory, in practice it can be difficult to access. Unlike the United States, in Mexico public schooling is predominantly available to children who are Mexican nationals. Therefore, children must acquire their Mexican citizenship to access schooling, and children with at least one Mexican parent can do this.

The challenge is that it requires a lot of paperwork, which can be difficult to acquire if a family with a U.S.-born child has already moved to Mexico. The handout, “Como inscribir a sus hijos en escuelas mexicanas” (“How to enroll your children in Mexican schools”) outlines the many documents immigrant families should gather prior to moving to Mexico and numbers to call in Mexico if they encounter challenges accessing schooling.

Since 2015, advocacy groups in Mexico have helped streamline this process and have eliminated the need to acquire costly “apostillas” (government stamps) and official translations of students’ documents. Unfortunately, local school districts are often unaware of these changes and may mistakenly deny schooling access for binational students. The “Cover Letter to U.S. School Districts” and “U.S. School District Letter Template for Enrollment in Mexican Schools” detail the types of documents that U.S. schools can provide to help facilitate a student’s transition into Mexican schools.

Limited Supports to Develop Academic Spanish at School

In most Mexican public schools there is no “Spanish as a Second Language,” or the equivalent of English as a Second Language supports for students who have not had the opportunity to develop academic Spanish or literacy in their U.S. schools. This is common because most Latinx children in the U.S. attend English-only schools. This means that newly arrived students in Mexican schools will be in a ‘sink or swim’ Spanish-immersion context in which they will have limited school-based support to develop their Spanish literacy.

In addition, most teachers in Mexico have not been trained in bilingual education approaches. They are also guided by a relatively rigid federal curriculum in which there is limited differentiated instruction or specialized teachers (such as the equivalent of ESL teachers) who work with students. This means that newly arrived students are often left to their own devices to develop their academic Spanish and literacy. It may be useful to discuss with families ways they could begin to develop their children’s Spanish literacy before they move, and how to seek out additional supports, such as tutors, to help their child once in Mexico. Students who had the opportunity to study in bilingual schools in the United States have easier transitions into Mexican schooling.

Limited Special Education Services

Related video: Colorín Colorado Director Lydia Breiseth discusses this dilemma in a conversation with veteran ELL educator Anne Marie Foerster Luu.

Overall, there are far fewer resources in public schools for students who would benefit from special education services in Mexico. If an immigrant family has a child who is on an Individual Education Plan (IEP), it may be helpful to discuss they types of educational supports, such as a private school, that they might consider if they were to move back to their home country. For many families, having a child with significantly different learning needs plays a major factor in repatriation decisions. I have met families who have sent their child back to the U.S. to live with a relative after moving to Mexico in order for their children to continue to access the special education services they need, as described in the vignette below.

Socio-Emotional Issues

Understandably, the transition to life and schooling across international borders brings big changes for children, which can be exciting as well as challenging. Children often leave friendship networks, a lifestyle with more material stability, and a familiar schooling context in English for a place filled with new faces and ways of doing things. For many children I know, they are leaving urban or suburban contexts in the U.S. to live in small, rural towns in Mexico.

If they return due to a family member’s deportation, the emotional trauma of family separation may exacerbate the challenges of navigating change. And binational students are likely entering a schooling context in Mexico in which educators are caring, but have received little preparation to support students who are navigating these changes. Although it varies greatly across contexts, in some places recently arrived binational students face social exclusion from mononational peers because they speak, act, or look different.

It may be useful to speak with parents about how they will talk to their children about the types of changes that they may experience, and how to maintain open lines of communication so that their children can share the successes and challenges of the transition with them. It can also be useful to encourage caregivers to emphasize some of the things that will feel familiar across contexts – such as a favorite TV program that is also available in Mexico – so that children can anchor a changing childhood with familiar things.

Some of the Joys of Returning

Although there are some real challenges to navigating binational schooling, most children and families I have interviewed have had many positive experiences to share as well. Some of the aspects they highlight include:


Unlike the long hours with babysitters, watching TV inside their homes, or participating in a multitude of activities in the United States, children and parents celebrate the increased freedom of childhood once they move to Mexico. Many families live in spaces where children can be outside to play and have ample opportunities to build caring relationships with children of varying ages.


Most families return to their hometowns, which provides opportunities for their children to get to know extensive family networks in Mexico. Children who have never met their grandparents or cousins before now get to spend time with them daily. If a family member was deported, they have the opportunity to reunite with this loved one.


Most families are from towns and cities where celebrations bring people together in public for an array of cultural and religious purposes. Similar collective celebrations are rare in the United States, and families and children appreciate the opportunity to learn from and with others through these important events.

Caring Educators

Although the overall structures of Mexican and U.S. school systems create significant obstacles for binational students transitioning to Mexican schooling and offer limited technical preparation for Mexican educators to work with binational students, many students work with caring educators who seek out ways to understand their recently arrived students and try to support them. Although the curriculum does not permit a great deal of space for different knowledges, many educators creatively look for ways to provide the time and space for students to learn at their own pace and to support them in their learning.

It is also important for educators and families to keep in mind that siblings may have very different experiences from each other in terms of schooling, friendships, and language acquisition, just as siblings in immigrant families who come to the U.S. have different experiences. The following vignette illustrates an example.

Concluding Thoughts

The decisions that immigrant families currently face are significant and complex, and can have profound implications for their children’s future. Reminding families that they have strong networks of support in both countries can help offer some reassurance during an uncertain time. Most importantly, however, helping parents think through both the opportunities and challenges of their different options can help them see the situation a little more clearly in order to make the best decision for their family.

Documents for Schools

Educators can use the following documents for their own reference and to share with families:

  • Tips for parents in both English and Spanish
  • A sample letter that schools can use to report on student records in English and Spanish, along with guidance on providing such a letter
  • A flier detailing information that parents need about Mexican documents available in English and Spanish

Related Research

To learn more about this topic, look at the research conducted by Dr. Gallo, as well as related research conducted by Dr. Bryant Jensen at Brigham Young University in collaboration Mónica Jacobo from the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas. Dr. Jensen presented an overview of schooling for U.S. Citizens in Mexico at the Woodrow Wilson forum on The Impact of Immigration Enforcement Policies on Teaching and Learning in America’s Public Schools in February 2018. This event also included new research on the social-emotional impact of enforcement on students, educators, peers, and families.

About the Author

Dr. Sarah Gallo is an assistant professor at Ohio State University whose research focuses on bilingual and immigrant education in the U.S. and Mexico. Dr. Gallo is currently residing in Mexico and studying the experiences of binational children who have moved to Mexico from the U.S. in recent years, with a special focus on those who have moved back due to U.S. immigration policies.


Brabeck, K. M., Lykes, M. B., & Hershberg, R. (2011). Framing immigration to and deportation from the United States: Guatemalan and Salvadoran families make meaning of their experiences. Community, Work & Family, 14(3), 275-296.

Gallo, S. (2017). Mi padre: Mexican immigrant fathers and their children’s education. New York: Teachers College Press.
Gándara, P. (2016). Policy report. The student we share. Mexican studies, 32(2), pp. 357-378.

Passel, J. S., & Cohn, D. (2011). Unauthorized immigrant population: National and state trends, 2010. Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center. http://www.pewhispanic.org/files/reports/133.pdf

Pew Research Center (2015). More Mexicans Leaving Than Coming to the U.S. http://pewhispanic.org/2015/11/19/more-mexicans-leaving-than-coming-to-the-u-s


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