For many children, schools are a haven – a welcome refuge from the outside world. Good schools do not just provide educational instruction, but also give students the tools, resources and emotional support they need to thrive. Yet for many undocumented students, this is far from reality. Decades of anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies have led immigrant students and families to see schools not as places they can trust, or get the support and resources they need to succeed.
I know because I was once one of them. My parents immigrated from Mexico to Texas when I was just 11 years old in order to give my sisters and I a chance at a better life. They saw this country as the land of opportunity and its education system as the ticket to lasting success. In spite of the challenges and omnipresent risk they faced, my parents were determined that my sisters and I would receive a quality education in this country.
Entering school in the U.S. was overwhelming. I remember being shocked at how different the education system was in Texas compared to Mexico. And not being able to speak English or communicate with my teachers and peers in any meaningful way only made the transition harder. Undergirding all of this was a profound and omnipresent fear that my immigration status would be discovered and my parents and I would be deported back to Mexico. I remember feeling paralyzed with anxiety every time someone asked me for documentation I did not have.
That is why I co-founded ImmSchools: to ensure safe and inclusive schools for undocumented and mixed-status students and families. We create and facilitate programs to empower teachers, students and families with the skills and practices to support their educational trajectory and allow for undocumented students to thrive in schools. My experience working with the education system over the years is that the voices of immigrants have been systematically erased and silenced. So at ImmSchools, we work directly with the undocumented community to elevate their voices and empower them to be advocates for their community.
Traditionally, the education system has failed to prioritize the needs of undocumented students. A 2018 UCLA national survey of K-12 educators found that many respondents feel unprepared to support undocumented students in the classroom, with 88% calling on schools to provide forums for school-community communication about [immigrant] concerns. No child should feel confused, helpless or alone. ImmSchools works directly with educators to hone their knowledge, skills and capacity to support immigrant families through educational workshops. Teachers and counselors need to know undocumented students exist and that they have opportunities too.
But providing professional development for educators is just one platform of our work. We also hold community workshops with immigrant families to help them better understand their rights and the resources available to them, and we help school districts implement immigrant-friendly policies, such as hiring more bilingual or multilingual instructors in K-12 schools. Right now, families have few opportunities to engage with the school district in a language they speak. Teachers depend on Google Translate or ask one of their third graders to translate. That is not our students’ responsibility. It is the school system’s responsibility to find professional translators, so families know what is happening and have the opportunity to help schools craft a path forward. Our mantra is: Can someone who is undocumented access this resource? Then go ahead. If not: how can we make it more accessible for them? We must make every opportunity in our education system available to everyone.
The COVID-19 pandemic hit immigrant communities hard, especially in Texas. But is has also provided advocates with the opportunity to reset the education system and make it more inclusive for immigrant families. If students feel they can bring their whole selves, that they do not have to leave their lived experience at the door, then schools can become places where immigrants feel their language, their culture and their values are an asset to the community.
Despite all the challenges undocumented students face, they are still showing up, doing the hard work and overcoming barriers. I see this resilience every day in my work at ImmSchools. But it shouldn’t be this hard. As educators, we owe it to these students to create an education system that is safe, inclusive and equitable, where every child can thrive, regardless of their background or immigration status.
ImmSchools is a Walton Family Foundation grantee.