How to Support Immigrant Students and Families: Strategies for Schools and Early Childhood Programs

How Schools Can Help Meet Immigrant Students' Basic Needs

Students may face new challenges in having their basic needs met for a variety of reasons. Learn more about factors specifically impacting immigrant students and how to establish community partnerships that can help address some of those needs. 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 want to connect families with the resources they need to maintain their home and stability in the community.
Kristina Robertson, English Learner Program Administrator, Roseville Public Schools (MN)


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There is a constellation of factors that can impact an immigrant family's economic situation, along with housing or caregiving arrangements that may also be in flux.

Staying attuned to clues can help educators identify challenges students are facing. Community organizations and community schools can also play a valuable role in helping to meet the basic needs of immigrant students and families. Learn more from the strategies and resources below.

Note on seeking legal guidance

This guide includes numerous resources providing useful information for educators. While some of those resources include advocacy information, Colorín Colorado and our parent organization, public broadcasting station WETA-TV-FM, do not take political positions or participate in political advocacy.

In addition, the information in this guide should not be interpreted as legal advice. Any individual or organization seeking legal advice related to immigration issues should consult with the appropriate attorneys, local government officials, or non-profit organizations specializing in immigration law that can offer guidance. We also remind educators not to provide legal advice.

Keep in mind that immigrant families' economic situations may change

Why this matters

The ways in which immigration issues relate to families' economic situations are complex, especially when those situations or immigration policies change. Sometimes the changes are immediately visible; other times they are hidden, in part due to families' reluctance to draw attention to their situation.

Understanding how these issues are related is a good first step to addressing challenges that may impact students' abilities to be successful in the classroom. For example, students may not have some of their basic needs met. For example, breadwinners' employment situations may change because:

  • they lose employment following an immigration raid, even if they were not detained (Gándara and Ee, 2018a)
  • they choose to leave their jobs to avoid workplace immigration raids
  • they experience extended, unexpected separations
  • they are detained or deported
  • they are limited in transportation options, especially if undocumented
  • families are moving often, making it difficult to maintain employment.

In addition:

  • Immigrant families may decide not to register for benefits regarding food, housing, medical care, and disaster relief, foregoing benefits they previously used.
  • Children may be cared for by another adult, relative or older sibling.
  • Immigration proceedings can be costly.
  • Landlords and employers may exploit undocumented families.
  • Families may be scaling back on their expenses.
  • Families may be uncertain about how future policy changes will impact their situation.
  • Families may be concerned about proposed rule changes related to legal immigrants using public benefits ("public charge" rules) and deciding to turn those benefits down. See more on the "public charge" issue in our related resource section.

Related news headlines

Examples from the field

ELL administrator Kristina Robertson writes,

We are now seeing the financial effects families have experienced – for example, if a father has been the main wage earner and he is detained, the family is missing significant income. This impacts their ability to pay the rent or mortgage, buy food, and in some cases impacts transportation if the remaining parent doesn’t have a driver’s license. 

In addition, if the detained person is released on bail, our immigrant lawyer consultant said they would likely have to pay thousands of dollars for the bond. If a person is detained for many weeks, they are likely to lose their job and the family may lose their housing and have to start in a new community. 

Service providers who work with immigrant families are also beginning to see the impact of economic uncertainty on the families they serve. Lariza Dugan-Cuadra, Executive Director, of the Central America Resource Center (CARECEN), notes, "Our attorneys are doing quasi-social work. Unable to work and pay rent, many of those awaiting their immigration proceedings have become homeless or unstable in the process." 

News outlets NBC 4-New York and KCUR Public Radio have reported that many families are foregoing benefits such as food stamps through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and preliminary research presented in late 2018 shows that the number of immigrant families enrolled in SNAP dropped 10% in 2018. While there may be a variety of reasons for the change, researchers cite families' concern about immigration status as likely to be a key factor (see more on this topic in the next section about the "public charge" rule).

Kristina also confirms that she is seeing this on the ground:

We've also had a huge drop in our government food benefits program locally even for legally born children…currently our food pantries are strained to the max as families try to make use of local support…This also means they are less likely to take advantage of other school programs that their children may qualify for such as school lunch. (Personal communication, November 21, 2018)

There are also reports that some immigrant families are foregoing medical immunizations and medical appointments, while researchers with CLASP report that families are also skipping prenatal care, therapeutic services, hospital visits, and registration for programs like WIC for fear of immigration enforcement (Cervantes, Ullrich, & Matthews, 2018, p. 15).

And as a general rule, undocumented families have less access to health care and prevention services.  (You can read more about that topic in this related report from the Migration Policy Institute.) Some localities are working to help address these gaps; for example, The Washington Post reports that in April, "the school board in Las Cruces, N.M., passed a resolution promising to provide free and reduced cost meals, rides, health care, education and extracurricular services to undocumented immigrant students."

One teacher who filled out our 2017 survey on how schools are supporting immigrant students writes,

Eye-opening for me was when I took a survey of the number of students who work after school at full time jobs; often second shift late into the night. Helping to pay rent becomes a priority. Often, school falls by the wayside…It was surprising for me to find that 10 out of 10 ELLs in one particular class all worked in their home countries in agriculture as child laborers. Younger children went to school in the mornings and worked in the fields in the afternoons. Older children worked in the mornings and went to school in the afternoons.

Changes to the "public charge" rule

In September 2018, the White House announced a proposed rule change that would make it harder for legal immigrants to get green cards if they receive certain kinds of public assistance. When considering if a person is admissible to the United States as an immigrant or is eligible for legal permanent residence status, the government considers whether a person is likely to become a "public charge," meaning a person is likely to become dependent on public assistance. In August 2019, the rule change was confirmed and in early 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that the law could go into effect as legal challenges continue to make their way through lower courts. It went into effect on February 24, 2020. (See this overview in English / Spanish.)

The impact of the proposal has already been significant as many families have started to withdraw from benefit programs that they previously accessed. The Kaiser Family Foundation has produced this report on impacts of current and proposed immigration policy changes on the health of immigrant families. 

The Kaiser Family Foundation has also compiled this analysis about possible impacts on immigrant families if the public charge rule does go into effect in the future. Immigration experts estimate millions of children in immigrant families could be affected, many of whom are U.S. citizens, not including immigrants who withdraw from programs because of confusion about the new rules.

For example, PBS NewsHour reports:

Before the finalized rule was announced Monday, the National WIC Association, which advocates for state offices that oversee the federally funded USDA program that offers food and health care services to pregnant and postpartum women, as well as infants and young children who face food insecurity, said they had already seen “a staggering number of reports” of women and their U.S. citizen children dropping out of the WIC program.

“Women and their children are now forsaking vital nutrition assistance, education, and breastfeeding support out of the fear of consequence to their legal status,” the association wrote in a letter it submitted as a comment to the new rule. “This alarming trend persisted even when the proposed rule was unveiled without any consequences to an applicant’s legal status for participating in WIC.”

Benefits previously considered in this determination included cash assistance/welfare (such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or Supplemental Security Income) or federal assistance in paying for long-term care.

Under the rule change, the list of benefits would be expanded to include:

  • non-emergency Medicaid (with some exceptions for services through school and disability programs)
  • food stamps through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
  • enrollment in Medicare Part D program subsidies for prescription drugs
  • Section 8 rental and housing vouchers.

The rule also specifies "negative factors" for eligibility, including limited English proficiency.

Some categories of immigrants would be excluded from the rule. Green card applicants would be judged on whether they themselves use the benefits, and not on whether other family members or dependents such as children use the benefits; nevertheless, the impact on immigrants who are not using these programs is likely to extend to all members of a household.


Immigrant advocates and medical personnel are sharing numerous examples of immigrants who are not seeking medical care related to the COVID-19 out of fear of consequences for their immigration applications or fear of deportation. (The government has specified that COVID-19 care will not be used as part of public charge considerations.) This puts many immigrants and their families at risk who may work as essential personnel or who may not have qualified for federal economic relief due to immigration status.

For more on this topic, see the following resources:

Food/nutrition benefits

In addition, as Kristina noted above, schools are receiving questions about enrolling free- and reduced-price lunch programs and families are already withdrawing. Free- and reduced-price meal programs are not included in this rule, and some districts are taking steps to communicate that information to families. The Children's Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, is also excluded from the rule change. Other programs excluded from the rule are listed in this resource guide from the state of California.

For guidance on food-related benefits, the following:

Should I Keep My Kids Enrolled in Health & Nutrition Programs? (Posted February 14, 2020)

Amharic | Arabic | Burmese | Spanish | Vietnamese

Related resources and news coverage

See more about "public charge" rule change from coverage of the rule when it was first announced from Education Week, ABC News, and The New York Times. Additional analysis of possible impacts has been compiled by Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees (GCIR) and by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Note: If you'd like to discuss this topic with students, take a look at this lesson plan about the public charge rule change from Immigrants Rising.

Tips for getting started

  • Look for clues about what is happening in students' lives rather than asking questions.
  • Take time to listen to students when they wish to talk to you.
  • Keep an eye out for economic distress among your students.
  • While it's important not to make assumptions or draw unwanted attention to families, consider having some discreet conversations if you notice an issue.
  • Talk with counselors, social workers, or administrators about how to best support families struggling to make ends meet.
  • Think about broader solutions if there seems to be wide-scale issues impacting multiple families, including partnering with organizations that can help address basic needs.
  • Look for ways to increase access to these services broadly. One respondent to our survey wrote, "All of our immigrant families are given access to the meals program, community help, and free- and-reduced lunch when they enroll at our schools."

In addition, keep in mind the following:

  • Immigration status may impact ability to secure basic services or benefits, such as:

◦ Food
◦ Housing and utilities (such as heating assistance in the winter)
◦ Social-emotional/mental health services
◦ Medical and dental care
◦ Transportation

Recommended resources

Recommended videos 

For more ideas on helping to meet the basic needs of students, see our Community Schools project featuring Wolfe Street Academy in Baltimore, MD, as well as the videos below:

Video playlist: Educators reflect on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need


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Ensure that students experiencing homeless have appropriate services

Why this matters

When immigrant students experience homelessness, they have additional educational rights under the federal McKinney-Vento Act (KIND and NAEHCY, 2010). Homeless students may not have documents required for school enrollment (U.S. Department of Education, 2015), yet they are still guaranteed a right to a free public education.  See more on this issue from the following:

The authors of the above report from KIND and NAEHCY explain that reasons for homelessness in this population include:

  • coming to the country unaccompanied
  • separation from family as a result of parental deportation
  • separation from family as a result of limited space/rules at homeless shelters
  • separation from family as a result of abuse, neglect, abandonment, or family discord
  • being forced to leave home as a punishment for pregnancy or revealing that they are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.

The researchers also note that undocumented homeless youth face unique challenges because they:

  • cannot work legally
  • are not eligible for most health insurance, health care services, and financial aid.

Students may also be afraid to reveal that they are homeless, as in the story Anne Marie Foerster Luu shares in the recommended video below, "A Student Who Was Homeless." It is also important to note that some immigrant students may be:

  • sharing housing with other families
  • moving often due to immigration concerns
  • having trouble establishing housing when they arrive in a new community.

Finally, it is important to note that large immigration raids such as those in Mississippi in August 2019 can leave multiple students at risk for homelessness. The Intercultural Research Development Association explains that supports for homeless students based on the "McKinney-Vento" Act can play an important role in helping students who might have been left homeless after the raid.

Tips for getting started

We recommend the report by KIND and NAEHCY for additional legal guidelines related to this population, as well as the tips and strategies included in the guide for educators and immigration attorneys.

Recommended resources

For additional information on this issue, see the following:

Recommended videos 

Video: A student who was homeless

Video: Challenges in finding affordable housing

Video: Family mobility

Video: How community schools increase student engagement and decrease family mobility

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Your families may have unique needs, circumstances, and challenges leading up to, during, or in the wake of a natural disaster. Learn more about how schools can help in this related article.





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

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