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When Undocumented Immigrants Are Your Students

Jordan Catapano

While immigration has played a large role in America’s history, today’s focus on immigration is preoccupied with the debate over undocumented immigrants and what to do about them.

Statistically, more than 11 million immigrants have entered the United States illegally in recent years. The Department of Homeland Security estimates this makes for at least 1.1 million school-aged children. Debate regarding what to do about the flood of undocumented immigrants resounds from every corner of the country, and oftentimes it’s the undocumented enrolled students and their teachers who are caught in the middle.

Some legislators and federal law enforcement agencies want help identifying undocumented immigrants; other authorities declare that every student is entitled to an education (see: the Supreme Court’s ruling in Plyler vs. Doe, 1982). But what should teachers do about the children who are right in front of them? Is this the right time for a moral dilemma, or do they simply teach each student equally and disregard citizenship?

The answer for educators is on a case-by-case basis, depending most heavily on what the educator is comfortable doing. In most cases, schools encourage their faculty to worry strictly about academic matters, and leave the politics to the state. Schools have been strongly discouraged by federal authorities into making inquiries regarding students’ citizenship status, such as in this letter issued jointly from the Departments of Education and Justice which clearly outlines the precedent for how schools ought to proceed regarding potential undocumented immigrants enrolling in schools.

Still, some teachers who discover the “secret identity” of their undocumented students take a compassionate response. This was true for teachers, like the now well-renowned Rich Fischer and Pat Hyland, who helped Filipino student Jose Antonio Vargas – now an award-winning journalist – trudge through the mired path of life undocumented life (and you should check out his unique predicament on the Texas border right now … he’s stuck). Other stories from throughout the country demonstrate compassionate teachers taking undocumented students under their wing and providing for them what they can.

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It’s no wonder that this issue easily entrenches us in a hotbed of debate: There are economic, political, and intensely personal implications for how undocumented immigrants are handled. And little is more sensitive than how this intersects with how they are treated in public schools.

What You Can Do About Undocumented Immigrants Who are Students

As the last 30-plus years of precedent demonstrate, and as Arne Duncan’s letter reinforces, it is not your role to ask to questions or “get to the bottom” of a student’s citizenship status. You might, however, stumble upon information that you didn’t expect – like Michelle Obama did when a second grader told her openly “My mom doesn’t have papers.”

Your school, union or state law might offer recommendations for how to handle these situations. It is strongly encouraged that you discover what those recommendations are so that you are well-informed as to what the authorities expect of you. After that, it is up to you to decide what you want to do about the child in front of you. Many educators choose simply to treat them like any other student in their class, assisting them to academically succeed through whatever means necessary.

If the student’s current level of education lags behind peers, then it may be necessary to make recommendations for appropriate classes or interventions to help the student find the setting that is most likely going to help them. You might pay attention to their English – perhaps an immigrant’s language comprehension requires an ESL setting.

You might also consider ways you could attempt to leverage the situation to enhance the learning of your class – make lemonade out of lemons, perhaps. This is a real-world situation that has strong implications for your students, so utilizing the topic (without necessarily “outing” your students) could inspire motivation and engagement with many of the academic skills we want students to enhance. It also opens up the opportunity for discussions and activities that allow for diverse backgrounds and perspectives: When your students are coming from different places they might understand themselves and one another better through such interactions.

Blended learning tasks – involving acquisition and application of knowledge through a variety of forms – may become more central to the learning process of your classroom as students have access to different resources, varying perspectives and interests, and unique backgrounds that ultimately contribute to their knowledge acquisition. It might also provide an opportunity for your American citizen students to develop a more diversified view of the world around them.

These, at least, are the more positive courses of action we could take when we discover an undocumented immigrant student’s secret. The debate rages on in our courts, legislatures, streets, homes, and schools. Where you stand is up to you, as are what opportunities you create out of controversial situations.

What do you think about having undocumented immigrant children in your classroom? What do you do? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is an English teacher at Conant High School in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and currently serves as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website

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