Strategies for Supporting Immigrant Students and Families

Addressing Questions About Immigration Enforcement and Schools

Students, families, and staff have questions about immigration enforcement in school and early childhood settings. Learn more about steps that schools and programs can take to address these questions, "sensitive locations" guidance, and policies that schools should have in place in the event of immigration enforcement activity in the community.

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

You don’t want to give false promises, but you also don’t want families to feel abandoned.  That is where letting kids and families know that you are a consistent member of their world can really help.

– Mark Gaither, Principal, Wolfe Street Academy in Baltimore, MD (Personal communication, February 24, 2017)


Students, families, and staff members have questions about immigration enforcement in schools and early childhood settings. Possible scenarios that come up range from a request for information to an agent entering a school building for the purposes of detaining someone (the latter could possibly happen but is not currently done under federal policy, as explained in the following information about "sensitive locations"). Here are some steps schools can take to address these questions.

For a quick snapshot, see this helpful infographic on Responding to Immigration Enforcement Issues from the Association of California School Administrators.  

Note: Additional information related to early childhood settings is included in our section on young children in immigrant families.

How do concerns about immigration enforcement affect schools?

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Concerns about immigration enforcement can impact student attendance, participation in activities, and parental engagement in both K-12 and early childhood settings if:

  • families are afraid to go to school, the grocery store, park, library, or day care centers
  • they stop family outings
  • they do things in a hurry each time they leave the house
  • they are late to school because they take different routes each day
  • they are afraid to come into the school.

Schools are "sensitive locations." What does that mean?

As of this writing, the Department of Homeland Security still recognizes “sensitive locations” where immigration enforcement should not take place without certain prior approvals and “exigent” (pressing) circumstances requiring immediate action.

These include schools, bus stops, and other educational sites such as college campuses and preschools; houses of worship; and medical facilities. So far, there has been no indication that that policy will change, although there have been cases of detentions happening very near sensitive locations, including schools, bus stops, churches, and hospitals. In addition, the 2017 case of Rosa Maria Hernandez, a 10-year-old with cerebral palsy who was detained for more than week following gallbladder surgery, raised the level of scrutiny on the “sensitive locations” policy. 

Note: This guidance is just that – guidance – and not codified into law; it could change at any point. The guidance also has certain limitations, which is why school and district leaders should become familiar with other related local/state laws and should stay current with updates on this topic.

Review "sensitive locations" guidance

Why this matters

It is important for school and district leaders, as well as early childhood providers, to understand the policies and guidelines that impact their settings so that they can (a) communicate them to staff and families, (b) answer questions, and (c) seek guidance if they have questions or concerns. This article from the Center for Law and Social Policy shares its findings that many early childhood providers were not familiar with sensitive locations guidance and as a result, could not answer families' questions accurately.

Tips for getting started

  • Review sensitive locations guidance and share it with staff and families.
  • Ask district/immigration attorneys for clarification as needed.
  • Identify sources for updates should any of these policies change.

Recommended resources

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Review any current district policies regarding immigration enforcement

Why this matters

Even though schools and early childhood programs are considered “sensitive locations,” many administrators are leading efforts to put policies in place addressing questions of immigration enforcement. Nevertheless, educators and families may have questions about existing or new policies, and many districts and early childhood programs still don’t have them in place. It is important to be familiar with your own district’s policies, in addition to “sensitive locations guidance” in order to:

  • answer parent questions accurately
  • share relevant procedures with staff districtwide, especially with front-office staff
  • respond appropriately to any requests for information by immigration enforcement.

Education Week notes that, “The policies in most districts affirm that schools will do everything within their legal power to protect student privacy, including barring the release of information about immigration status unless there is parental consent, or if federal agents produce a warrant, subpoena, or similar court order.”

Note: The California School Boards Association suggests that, “School leaders should review with legal counsel any request for student information submitted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement” (p. 4).

Tips for getting started

To ensure that all staff have the most up-to-date information about these policies:

  • Find out whether such a policy exists in your district or program.
  • If there is a policy:

◦ Check the policy regarding cooperation with law enforcement and immigration officials; many districts have tightened these restrictions or clarified the language regarding immigration enforcement on school grounds and requests for information.

◦ Review and update these policies with district lawyers and immigration organizations as needed.

◦ Share these policies with staff and families across the district.

◦ Ask for clarification in the policies where it is needed.

  • If your district has no policy in place:

◦ Look at examples of these kinds of policies, such as this sample protocol.

◦ Talk with school or district leaders about steps needed to establish a school-wide protocol if immigration enforcement agents come to the school.

◦ Share examples of other districts' policies.

◦ Consult with immigration attorneys and school district attorneys as needed.

It is important to keep in mind that:

  • educators should not give legal advice about what any specific family should do, other than to refer them to “know your rights” information or to consult an attorney
  • any educator or staff member may be asked about immigration enforcement by a student or family
  • educators working directly with immigrant families may be well-informed about these issues based on independent research and experience.

Recommended resources


School district guidance


Virginia State Superintendent memo on immigration

This state memo answers the following questions:

  • What legal responsibilities do division [district] superintendents have in reference to federal executive actions concerning immigration that may impact students enrolled in local school divisions?
  • What legal responsibility do districts have towards Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials on this issue?
  • What are the legal obligations of districts towards students in the case that their parents are taken into custody or deportation proceedings and their children are left alone or homeless?
  • Do districts have the authority to take action in support of students and their families whose fears of deportation are heightened? 

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Make a plan to care for children whose parents are detained during the school day

Why this matters

Schools and early childhood centers are finding themselves in the unexpected position of caring for children whose parents, caregivers, or guardians have been detained during the day. Having some protocols in place for this situation improves the chance of finding an appropriate, known caregiver for students. Researchers at UCLA studying the impacts of immigration enforcement on schools note that two administrators who responded to their survey reported that they were investigating foster parenting in case they needed to take students home with them (Gándara and Ee, 2018a). 

Support for students

Family separation, detention, or deportation can cause intense trauma, stress, economic hardship, and uncertainty for students. Learn more about those impacts as well as how to address them in our sections in this guide on:

Tips for getting started

  • Find out if your district/program has a basic protocol for educators to follow if parents, caregivers, or guardians have been detained
  • If so, review it to see what it entails.
  • If not, consider creating one that includes:


    • what district employees should do if they suspect a parent has been detained or deported
    • whom to contact
    • where the child should stay until emergency contacts are reached
    • guidance on following all parental instructions and exhausting contact options to find a "known caregiver in a safe environment" (Stanford Law School & California Charter School Association, 2017, p. 17) in an effort to minimize referrals to child protective services
    • providing emergency/temporary shelter care as needed
    • access to social-emotional support and services
    • guidance on working with child protective services should all options be exhausted to ensure the best possible outcomes for the child
    • additional actions the school can take to protect children whose parents have been arrested, detained, or are otherwise unavailable.

Note: As part of California's Assembly Bill 699 (2017), schools in California must take appropriate steps to minimize referrals to child protective services if a parent or guardian becomes unavailable due to immigration enforcement action.

Recommended resources

Following an immigration raid

Articles and news items

Guides, toolkits, and recommendations

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Consider a partnership with local safety personnel such as fire and police departments

Why this matters

You may wish to explore partnerships with local fire or police organizations to build relationships with the community at a time of uncertainty. Your mayor’s or county executive’s office might have suggestions about where to start. The Center for Law and Social Policy shares the story of a young child who tried to hide his mother when they saw a police officer for fear that she would be arrested (Cervantes, Ullrich, & Matthews, 2018, p. 10).

In order to build bridges, many schools are creating partnerships with police community liaisons and/or bringing police officers to the school in informal settings (basketball games, barbeques, family events etc.). You may find that public safety departments are interested in increasing outreach to immigrant families and looking for avenues to do so.

Working with these partners can strengthen community relationships and also improve safety if families feel more confident reporting emergencies or other problems. A teacher shared a story with us of a young girl who met a firefighter at school; she later confided in him that, during a family emergency, she felt more comfortable calling the fire department than she would have otherwise.

Tips for getting started

  • If you’d like to try this kind of partnership, first find out which local organizations might be a good fit. If you want to explore a partnership with local police departments, work closely with the local police officials to determine their policies regarding immigration enforcement, as well as to establish shared goals and expectations for the partnership.
  • If you share common goals and want to try the partnership, be sure to communicate clearly what the goals of the partnership to families are so that they know what to expect and aren’t surprised to see police officers in an unexpected setting. Seeing a uniformed official at the school may cause families to panic.
  • Explore partnerships with local firefighters or park rangers as an alternative or first step.
  • Keep in mind that some police departments may be more proactive in their cooperation with immigration officials. Remember that school personnel have an obligation to protect students' rights and privacy; there is no "duty" to report undocumented immigrants.

Recommended resources

Recommended videos 

A community partnership with local police officers (Principal Nathaniel Provencio)

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Keep informed on current events and changes in policy

Why this matters

New or updated immigration policies may be announced at any time by the federal government. In addition, local measures in your school district, municipality, or state may also change. At the most practical level, it will be important to know how any changes in policy may affect your families. On a broader level, it will be important to know what kinds of issues may be affecting your students, what they hear, and what they are feeling. 

Tips for getting started

To stay up-to-date, you can:

  • Designate a point person on immigration (see tips related to this strategy in our section on staff collaboration).
  • Look for organizations in the community and online that are providing regular updates on the issues impacting your families.
  • Ask your professional networks for recommendations on where to get information.

Reminder: Encourage students and families to choose their sources of information carefully

Educators have discussed the difficulty that comes from students and parents having inaccurate information or news coming from unreliable sources, like YouTube. This confusion prompted a high school student named Katia who came to this country as an unaccompanied minor to speak with some middle school students. She observed, "We got to talk in a circle and we find out, yes, some people are just feeling really stressed and they don’t know what's going on. We have come to a conclusion that we need to put more information for parents and scholars to know more about what's going on instead of randomly saying little pieces of things that they heard." See more on the issue of media literacy in 4 Practical Steps to Help Immigrant Families in Your School Community from Education Week.

Recommended resources

Help families keep emergency contact information up-to-date

See tips for this critical step in our related article.






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

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