Faculty Associates News Posted on Thursday, April 06, 2017

The Role of Educators for Immigrant Communities in Political Upheaval: Understanding of Complex Social Realities

On January 27th, 2017, a Presidential Executive Order significantly impacted the immigrant community by limiting visas to foreign born nationals. This motion (and subsequent iterations) are designed to promote fear of terrorists among all citizens. However, it simultaneously cast innocent legal visitors, students, employees, or refugees as suspects who might harm Americans.

While this type of ban is extremely problematic in many different ways, one of the most pertinent negative consequences is the tone it sets for future actions that are aimed at the exclusion of specific individuals. It creates fear within immigrant communities who were previously protected under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and legal visas, especially children of immigrants who outwardly reflect a non-white ethnicity, race, or culture. It also serves as an ideological go-ahead to anyone who wants to express anti-immigrant sentiment. Unfortunately, there have been countless examples of hate crimes that have been perpetrated against immigrants at a level that far exceeds what has been observed in the past. Hateful speech and behavior, coupled with the force of law working against immigrant causes, make for a hostile environment that can leave individuals feeling isolated, ostracized, and fearing for their lives and livelihoods.

Educators are often at the frontlines interacting with immigrant students, parents, and community members. Beyond providing academic instruction, schools are expected to create a safe space for parents to leave their children, provide information about community events and resources, and make referrals to local agencies. Unfortunately, finding a person who is knowledgeable about immigration related policy and appropriate supports is a challenge, as the policies are constantly in flux pending additional executive actions, court orders, and public demonstrations. For example, in immediate response to the January travel ban and the chaos that ensued, the court of public opinion staged mass protests at airports and cities across the country to oppose the ban. Similarly, the court of law stepped in, and judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (2017) presented a motion for a stay of order to prevent the travel ban from being implemented. Many universities and employers scrambled to intervene on behalf of their students, faculty, or employees stuck abroad or detained at airports. In addition, many states, cities, and schools have declared themselves sanctuary sites that refuse to comply with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials.

Despite these actions of resistance, the ban suspends the rights of 22.5 million immigrants, who can no longer expect equal protection under the law. In this context of uncertainty, educators can play a role in helping their students to navigate and cope with this new reality. Educators have a unique opportunity to serve as allies and advocates for their students, colleagues, and communities from immigrant communities. Below, we identify challenges and recommendations for educators, educational policymakers, and practitioners to consider when working to meet the needs of immigrants from an educational perspective.

Legal Mandates

First, there are logistical and ethical dilemmas that arise when institutions or individuals take a stand against legal mandates or executive orders that may be violations of the constitution and human dignity. By forcing educators to report data on students and families that are undocumented, schools become complicit instruments of ICE in deporting and separating families. Oftentimes, teachers or administrators know that a student or their family members are undocumented. Guarding this secret from ICE authorities may be a conflict of interest, especially for public school educators, as they are representatives and employees of government entities themselves. Previously, during the Obama administration, “Dreamers” (undocumented students brought to the United States as children by their parent) were encouraged to come out of the shadows and sign up for DACA – a meaningful plan for deferring removal of over 2 million individuals from the country. Now, there is uncertainty over whether the new administration will allow for new applications and renewals under DACA and whether schools should encourage undocumented individuals to self-identify and make themselves known to authorities. Administrators must clarify the school/district’s position on whether/how they will respond to requests from government agencies to assist with identifying or locating immigrants in question. This position should be clarified and publicized for all teachers, staff, families, and community members as part of an awareness campaign. Resources should be provided so that educators can stay informed about the current status of federal, state, and local legal mandates, and they can prepare their own planned response to inquiries from worried students and parents. Information is key to addressing the concerns.

Funding and Resources

Because public schools and universities are dependent on federal and state funds, they are subject to the laws and mandates that are issued. With cash-strapped budgets and a constant struggle to make ends meet within public education, the threat to withhold funding cannot be taken lightly. Furthermore, the strain on schools that serve high immigrant populations is greater because of an increased reliance on resources such as translators, school meals, transportation, and afterschool care. In fact, these schools need even more funding and resources when serving immigrant populations, who are disproportionately living in poverty and lacking in social capital as compared to their nonimmigrant counterparts. Schools might need to pursue non-governmental financial support and partner with existing immigrant service agencies to mitigate the financial threats associated with standing against inhumane policies.

Emotional Well-being of Children, Youth, and Families

Recent political events have taken an emotional toll on disenfranchised and marginalized populations, who have been personally targeted for government sanctioned removal, exclusion, or maltreatment. The role of educators often involves counseling students or families facing intense stress and even trauma from real and imagined outcomes of legislative mandates. There is frustration among educators who are unable to provide clear answers or support to students and families in immigrant neighborhoods. Even when social service agencies exist, there is no guarantee that the service providers will be knowledgeable about the particular language, culture, or country of origin of the families seeking assistance. Families from Iran, Iraq[1], Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen — all targeted in the ban — are most likely to need support; however, few agencies are knowledgeable and able to support the social and emotional well-being of all families from these countries. This role is often foisted upon the teachers that serve them.

As educators, we need to be sensitive to the needs of immigrants, refugees, and undocumented students from these and other countries. In all likelihood, they paid a high price to be in this country and make it into U.S. classrooms. Partnerships between schools and community/religious leaders can be one way to problem-solve around the needs of the families. School administrators can provide support and professional development to educators to foster awareness, inclusion, and identify methods of support that are culturally sensitive. Further, administrators can leverage political and social capital to advocate for immigrant families. Unfortunately, without administrative support, adequately addressing all of our students’ needs is challenging, so commitment at the top is critical.

Information Dissemination

One of the greatest challenges in the messy reality of our current socio-political context is the lack of clear, consistent, and correct information. Language proficiency, literacy rates, disability, and education level may be barriers for some families of immigrants to access information. Furthermore, in an era of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” it has become increasingly difficult to verify whether a source of information is reliable, especially in the context of constantly changing policies, mandates, and competing ideologies that make keeping up with the “truth” difficult.  So, if educators are to serve and advise our immigrant students and families properly, where can they turn for guidance? Should they repeat what they have been told by political leaders and only accept the reports that have been approved for release from government agencies? Educators are often the only trusted source that our students can turn to, but they are often unprepared to provide students with answers.

The current sociopolitical climate requires a higher level of consciousness for our educators because they may serve as the conduit of information for their immigrant students and families. Thus, they must learn to critically analyze what passes through their newsfeed.  Keeping abreast of the most recent information regarding policies that affect immigrants in schools and, more importantly, training someone from within the immigrant community who knows the language to support the community from within are crucial. Schools must work with social service agencies and local civic groups to ensure that knowledge and resources are publicized and made available to students, families, teacher and administrators.

Advocates and leaders from both within immigrant communities and at every level of government must stand up and support all those with the least power, including immigrants who are not U.S. citizens and who are most likely to lose educational and other life opportunities. This places an added burden on teachers, counselors, principals, and parent coordinators within school settings to navigate the current sentiment of anti-immigrant policies and the students that are affected by them.  Girding ourselves with information, networks of influence and resource, and commitment to human dignity are key to fulfilling our educational mission.


[1] Iran was removed from the list of banned countries on March 6th, 2017 in a revised Executive Order.

This article is part of a series of faculty commentary around issues of equity and justice in education policy. Click here to read the full series.

Jennifer F. Samson, EdD is a Roosevelt House Faculty Associate and Acting Chair and Associate Professor of Special Education at Hunter College School of Education. Her current scholarship is focused on teacher diversity and cultural responsiveness with a specific interest in supporting positive outcomes for culturally and linguistically diverse learners with and without disabilities. Dr. Samson has published and presented research, practice, and policy related work in the Journal of Learning DisabilitiesReading and WritingTeachers College Record, and Teaching Exceptional Children. She received her BA from UC San Diego, MA from San Francisco State University, and EdM and EdD from Harvard University.

David Housel, an Ed.D. student in Instructional Leadership at Hunter College, holds two Master’s degrees—one in Social Work and another in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages—both from Hunter College.  He works as the Associate Director of the CUNY Language Immersion Program and chairs the Curriculum Committee in the Division of Adult and Continuing Education at LaGuardia Community College.  Mr. Housel has over 16 years’ experience in adult literacy and ESL and for over 30 years’ experience in social work, including supervising and mentoring graduate social work and teaching interns.  He has presented at local, national, and international conferences on social work practice in HIV/AIDS, the multicultural issues related to effective social work practice and ESL pedagogy, and helping immigrant students enter college.

Melinda Snodgrass, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Special Education at Hunter College. She earned her Ph.D. in Special Education from the University of Illinois after seven years as a special education teacher in public schools. She works primarily with children who do not use speech, exploring effective practices around augmentative and alternative communication (AAC). She cares deeply about providing supports to families and school teams to ensure that children, in turn, have access to consistent, integrated, effective communication supports.