We would advise school staff to educate themselves about concerns that families of English Learners in their community are facing, and to be aware of and sensitive to those concerns without making any assumptions about a family’s specific situation.
– Muhidin Warfa, Director of the Multilingual Department, Minneapolis Public Schools (MN)
Immigrant families may have a range of questions and concerns about issues related to immigration or other topics. Understanding those concerns will help schools partner with families more effectively. Learn more about how you can engage in a productive conversation about those topics with the ideas below.
Note on legal guidance
The information presented here should not be interpreted as legal advice. If you, your school, your students or your families are looking for legal guidance, we strongly encourage you to collaborate with your school district's legal department, local government officials, immigration attorneys, or non-profit organizations that specialize in immigration law. We also remind educators not to provide families with legal advice.
Listen to families' questions and concerns
Why this matters
Immigrant families’ situations can be very complex, varying from community to community and family to family. In order to best address parents’ concerns, it is critical to ask for their input and give them a variety of avenues for sharing that input. You may be surprised at what parents would find helpful or unhelpful – which is why it is important to ask! For example, educators who completed our 2017 survey on how schools are supporting immigrant families indicated that families had concerns about the following issues:
- Fears about deportation
- Separation from family members in other countries
- Safety concerns
- Interest in legal advice
- Where to get help for trauma
- Proving residency in the school district
Educators have also received requests from families who wanted information about how to manage stress and help their children manage stress and anxiety, including from parents of young children (Cervantes, Ullrich, & Matthews, 2018).
Some school districts have also put extra channels of communication in place for immigrant families to share questions and concerns. For example, officials in Los Angeles set up a hotline and a website for questions related to immigration, while officials in Santa Fe, New Mexico created a hotline to report bullying or harassment and a parent group for immigrant families to “collect information and share news.”
Respondents to our 2017 survey on how schools are supporting immigrant families said they were making a point to:
Speak directly with parents and ask if we can help them in anything. Sometimes they are only seeking someone that will listen to them.
Establish a climate and culture of respect and addressing concerns openly and honestly.
Tips for getting started
You can gather input from families in both private and group settings by collaborating with a cultural liaison and asking families what kinds of information they want and how they would like to receive it. You may also wish to:
- provide families with a space for meeting and opportunities for discussion
- determine what roles your staff and community partners can play
- find ways to make outreach as culturally responsive as possible
- find ways to share information with multiple families who may have similar questions
- encourage families to take leadership roles.
- Drawing Upon Strong Community Support: Meeting Immigrant Families' Needs During Uncertain Times (Muhidin Warfa, Director of the Multilingual Department – Minneapolis Public Schools, MN)
Video: Question from a Muslim parent
Be honest with families about the kinds of support you can provide
Why this matters
Educators and school leaders spoke about the need to be honest and realistic with families while reassuring them that they were doing everything in their power to keep students safe. They did not want to offer false hope but were still striving to address parents' concerns.
Tips for getting started
Administrators can have address families’ concerns by:
- answering questions honestly
- sharing policies proactively
- asking parents what they would find helpful (such as video-streaming events for parents without requiring attendance)
- reminding families that all children have a constitutional right to a free public K-12 education and and they have rights about sharing their and their child’s personal information under FERPA (see more in our section on protecting students' privacy rights)
- keeping lines of communication open.
- Talk with colleagues in your school, district, or professional learning communities about how they are addressing these challenging conversations.
- Do your best to understand your own local context and families’ concerns. Current approaches to communicating about these issues vary widely, even within the same district.
- Ask families for their input. While some things are beyond your control, there may be other things you can do that would help families feel more comfortable in sending their kids to school and coming to the school themselves.
- Work with community partners such as an immigration advocacy organization to provide accurate, up-to-date information.
Share information through outreach and events
Why this matters
Families may not know where to turn for help and may be afraid to reach out with questions. Schools and early childhood programs can offer workshops, family nights, or other events about:
- “know your rights” sessions: This information helps families understand what rights they do have, even if they are undocumented, and what to expect if detained. (Learn more about how educators in North Carolina, Virginia, and Los Angeles are sharing this kind of information with families.)
- information about the school/program policies regarding enrollment and immigration
- resources in the community
- tips for managing stress.
Reminders to families
Some educators are reminding families to avoid run-ins with the law that can lead to immigration proceedings, such as: getting pulled over for a broken taillight, driving without a license, driving under the influence, or even riding in a car with someone else who is undocumented. (See more about driving while undocumented in this New York Times article.)
Are we allowed to hold these kinds of events at school?
Schools and districts across the country are answering that question differently with regards to using school facilities and teacher involvement. See more guidelines in our section on educator advocacy and outreach. For schools that have policies prohibiting events explicitly about immigration issues, community partners or teachers’ unions may be able to host events on their property in collaboration (directly or indirectly) with the school.
Tips for getting started
- Talk with families and staff who work closely with families about what kinds of information they would find most useful.
- Connect with a legal or immigration advocacy group to share this information with families.
- Look for ways to share this kind of information on a regular basis, such as at parent teacher conferences with all families, and include a way for them to follow up with you. This places the decision to talk more about these issues in families’ hands.
- Look for ways that can make these events more accessible for families, such as:
◦ providing transportation, meals, child care, and interpretation (if needed)
◦ holding events at times convenient to the families
◦ holding events in families' neighborhoods (this may address restrictions on the kinds of events that can be held at the school and make families feel more comfortable)
◦ offering information in different formats for families who do not wish to visit the school, such as phone calls, email, text, fliers, or livestreamed video events on video.
- Know Your Rights: A Guide to Your Rights When Interacting with Law Enforcement in Multiple Languages (Catholic Legal Immigration Network)
- Know Your Rights: Guide in English and Spanish (American Federation of Teachers)
- Hosting Know Your Rights and family preparedness workshops at your school (Informed Immigrants)
Supporting Immigrant Parents: This Spanish-language video addresses tough topics such as bullying and potential family separation. The video is also available with English subtitles.
See our complete reference list for works cited in this article.