Strategies for Supporting Immigrant Students and Families

How to Connect Immigrant Families with Legal Support and Advice

A woman talking on a microphone.

Connecting immigrant families with legal advice and support can have a significant impact on their situation. Here are some tips on figuring out what kinds of trustworthy resources are available for immigrant families.

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

Families have varied wishes for how much information they want young children to know (about their situation), and we need to find ways to support students while also respecting families' wishes. Each family approaches the situation differently, so educators need to ask questions about how families are approaching talking to children.

– Educator, American Federation of Teacher ELL Cadre


Schools can help connect immigrant families with legal advice and support, often presented by a community partner or advocacy organization. This information and support may focus on families’ rights and steps or decisions that could have a big impact on their situation and on their children. Partner organizations can help pinpoint the information that will best serve your population of families.

Seeking legal guidance

This information 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.

Download PDF versions:

Why this matters

Connecting families with free or low-cost legal help could have a significant impact on their situation. It is important to note that immigrant families are particularly vulnerable to fraudulent “attorneys” who charge ongoing fees for their services. (See more about scams targeting immigrant clients in the following information.) In addition, immigrant children in deportation or asylum proceedings don’t have the right to publicly-funded court-appointed lawyers.

There may be immigrant organizations offering pro bono legal help that could make a big difference to a family. These organizations:

  • are more likely to have accurate and up-to-date information, particularly as events move quickly
  • may be able to provide advice and materials in their own settings that are not restricted by school district rules
  • may have professionals who can connect families with immediate legal advice.

Note: Here are some tips for figuring out what kind of outreach is allowed in your setting.

Tips for getting started

  • Your district may have guidelines or rules about what is considered legal advice or support. Check those carefully as you get started.
  • Look around the community for trusted resources and partners that can provide pro bono legal advice, such as a legal practice or law school.
  • Look for ways to connect families to these kinds of resources by:

◦ providing translated flyers parents with contact information or legal hotlines

◦ offering information in one-on-one conversations with families

◦ hosting workshops and information sessions for parents

◦ finding out what resources or events may be available through your teacher's union.

Note: The California courts have developed a bilingual resource directory about basic state and federal immigration information, how to find immigration legal help, and resources if children are separated from their parents.

Help for immigrant families: Guidance for schools

The Immigrant Legal Resource Center offers the following additional tips for schools in their guide on helping immigrant families:

  • Help educate families on how to seek competent immigration help and avoid fraud.
  • Encourage all families to get an immigration “checkup” to find out what protections and options that may benefit them.
  • Offer families advice about which documents to keep with them at all times.

Avoiding fraud: Scams targeting immigrants

There are a number of different scams targeting immigrants, often promising to help change immigration status or speed along an application. (These scams can target both documented and undocumented immigrants.) These scams not only cost immigrants large sums of money that will not be recovered, they can actually hurt their immigration cases or lead to deportation. A common problem is the hiring of notarios ("notaries") in Latino communities. While notarios in Latin American nations may have legitimate legal credentials, that is not the case in the U.S. They are not qualified to provide legal help or advice, but often take advantage of neighbors who feel more comfortable working someone from their home country who speaks Spanish.

Learn more about notarios from the following resources and videos, as well as other resources to help immigrants avoid scams from the following resources.

Note: Official government documents, even in the form of hand-outs, may make some families nervous. Be sensitive in how you distribute this information.

Legal resources


FAQs and Background Information

News Headlines

Recommended video 

Video: The truth about Notarios

Video: La Verdad Acerca los Notarios

Back to top >

Connect families with expert guidance on planning for a possible separation

Why this matters

Many schools are addressing the question of possible separation due to family detention or deportation through the following steps, usually taken with immigrant advocates who can guide parents through difficult conversations with great sensitivity and attention to practical matters. This expertise is essential on legal questions of guardianship and caretaking.

This is a delicate line to walk. A one-size-fits-all approach may not work well and different families will have varying needs depending on their situation.  Nevertheless, a little bit of information and forethought can go a long way in giving children the best chance for a stable situation in the event of separation, especially since children of detained parents can quickly end up in foster care. (See more information on this topic in our sections on emergency contact information and the protocols for caring for children when a caregiver is unavailable.)

What will families be asked to consider?

A helpful overview of this topic can be found in the Protecting Undocumented and Vulnerable Students guide. These steps include:

  • Encouraging families to have a written plan in place in the event of separation: Some schools and advocates are helping parents find guidance on what kind of plans they should have in place in the event of separation or detention. These might include:

◦ designating legal guardians, a particularly important decision for parents of children with special education needs (see related coverage of this issue in The L.A. Times and The Washington Post)

◦ establishing power of attorney

◦ gathering necessary information related to the child’s care (particularly medical information)

getting passports for U.S.-born children from parents’ country of birth, such as Mexico

  • Ensuring that families understand that all plans must be in writing: Many families may not realize that these plans need to be put into writing and will benefit from formal guidance on this issue.

Tips for getting started

  • Consult with legal experts on what kinds of information families need and how best to share that information.
  • “Take the temperature” on whether families are interested in this information; ask parent liaisons before talking with families themselves. Some may want the information, while others will not wish to discuss it or expose their children to the topic. Some settings may have success in sharing this information in a group setting, while others may find more success with private conversations.

Reminder: The importance of sound legal advice

If families are considering giving power of attorney or guardianship of their children to a trusted adult, it is imperative that they:

  • get sound legal advice on how to do so and aren't consulting with fraudulent immigration lawyers
  • understand that all decisions must be recorded in writing
  • understand all implications of those decisions.

Recommended resources

For more recommendations on this topic, see the following:

This article describes a pocket emergency-preparedness-guide for immigrant families created and printed by the city of New Haven, CT.

The Mexican government has also issued a guide on this topic in Spanish.

Back to top >

Consider creating a policy about "letters of support"

Why this matters

When families experience immigration proceedings such as detention or court hearings, their lawyer may ask them to collect letters of reference to demonstrate the good character of the person and/or family. Individual families may request such letters from administrators, teachers, guidance counselors, parent liaisons, and social workers.

It may be an issue that requires some consideration. In the school district that provided sample guidance below, there was much discussion about whether to provide these letters since the district had a policy of not providing letters for family disputes. After extensive review, the superintendent decided that the district would provide these letters when requested, clearly stating that they were going to do this because it supported families staying together – which has a direct impact on students’ learning.

Tips for getting started

The first step is to determine whether the district has a policy on this issue. If not, since these are legal documents, it is important for schools, centers, and districts to determine how to approach this issue, including whether these letters will be provided.

If the district decide to provide letters in appropriate cases, it will be helpful to have a policy indicating:

  • who will write and sign the letters
  • what kind of information will be included
  • how letters should be requested and processed.

Recommended resources

Recommended videos 

Video: Writing letters of support for families


Back to top >


Take time to listen to families who want to talk about returning to their home country

Why this matters

Educators are hearing from families who want to discuss important, complicated decisions about whether they might return voluntarily to their home countries, even if their children are U.S. citizens. Schools can play an important role in these conversations by providing families with an opportunity to discuss their options and considerations that might impact their decision.

The challenges of integrating students in a new school system are significant. Dr. Sarah Gallo, a researcher based in Mexico who is working with U.S.-born students enrolled in Mexican schools (which now number more than 500,000), has noted two significant factors in the schooling of this population:

  • Mexican schools do not offer "Spanish as a second language," which means that students are in a "sink or swim" environment for some time.
  • Special education services can differ greatly, and in some cases, be very costly.

At the same time, returning to a home country can provide positive opportunities to reunite with family members and return to a large network of extended family. This toolkit developed with Dr. Sarah Gallo discusses these issues in depth and also provides a list of required documents for families returning to Mexico who will be enrolling their children in school. Many of these recommendations in the toolkit can be applied to other countries as well, although the school registration requirements and documents may vary.

Tips for getting started

  • It is very important to be sensitive to how you communicate about these kinds of resources. It is not appropriate for educators to encourage families to make a certain choice. Carefully consider how to communicate about these issues so that conversations are not construed as encouragement to make one decision or another.
  • If you are already holding events for immigrant families’ questions and concerns, consider 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."

Recommended resources

Recommended video 






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

Back to top >



More by this author

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.