Help for teachers of undocumented immigrants

schoolchildren from Puerto Rico

Teachers who have children of undocumented immigrants in their classrooms may feel confused about how to help their students. Learn how you can support these families and find resources to download.

Here is a letter I received from a teacher with undocumented immigrants in her classroom:

Dear Sarah,  

I need guidance or any information to help my students. I had one mother already deported, and another family about to lose their mother. Do you have any information or contact information to help my students in Ohio?  

Sigh … it seems to be far more rampant than ever before. The boy who has come to me has already lost three family members and his mother has an ankle bracelet on. Any help or suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

This heartbreaking note from Susan, a middle-school teacher in Ohio, describes a situation all too common in US classrooms. Many teachers feel wholly unprepared to deal with the emotional and social turmoil of students facing the deportation of family members who are undocumented immigrants. As we begin a new school year, it is important that teachers and school districts are equipped with the facts, and that students in immigrant communities know their rights.

Undocumented immigrants numbers

According to the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research and advocacy organization based in Washington, DC, 5 million children under age 18 are living with at least one parent who is in the country illegally. The vast majority of those minors – nearly 80 percent – are themselves US citizens, according to the institute. But, in 2014, just over 1 million students without legal status between the ages of 3 and 17 were enrolled in public schools.  

Rights and responsibilities

According to an article from US & World News Report,“The educational rights of children no matter their legal status were codified by the Supreme Court in 1982. In Plyler vs. Doe, the justices held that age-appropriate children are entitled to a K–12 public education regardless of their immigration status. Districts also can’t implement policies or practices that might have a chilling effect on immigrant student enrollment, such as requiring Social Security numbers on paperwork.

So, while DACA enrollment status remains unclear, students are nevertheless guaranteed the universal human right to an education.

Even so, undocumented immigrants, their families, and communities are on edge. ICE raids at businesses that employ high numbers of immigrant workers have scared many families into hiding – and that means the children often do not get sent to school. When children of potential deportees do arrive in the classroom, they bring with them a whole host of fears and insecurities that tend to undermine their learning. Classroom teachers are often the first to step up and make sure the students’ basic needs are being met.

Safe zones

Rather than being broadly concerned with the socio-emotional support of immigrant students, teachers are now feeling responsible about the very real threats the students are facing. “Who is allowed to pick up a child at school if their parent is detained?” “What should we do if ICE comes to campus or stops the field-trip bus on an interstate highway?” are questions often posed to administrators. “This is the new reality,” says Maureen Costello, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance program.

In response, the National Education Association – the largest union of education professionals in the US – has implemented a “Safe Zones” resolution. Adopted by more than 100 school districts nationwide, the resolution restates a commitment to the tenets of Plyler vs. Doe, as well as protecting students’ rights and privacy. The declaration offers a step-by-step guide for enforcement with items such as:

  • directing third parties to school administrator and Superintendent
  • requesting and copying identification from officers
  • contacting parents
  • requesting grounds for access and contacting legal counsel
  • completing the steps prior to admission onto school grounds

You can find more information from the National Education Association.

Help from USAHello

Safe zones declaration

USAHello is proud to offer safe zones declarations translated into three languages. Schools are encouraged to post the document in all languages in their office or hallways.

Rapid response plan

Teachers can create a rapid response plan with their immigrant families. Use this document to ensure that families have all of their affairs in order, prior to an emergency. This is a great resource to help immigrant families empower themselves and is translated into two languages. 

We look forward to adding these documents in more languages to our website soon.

FindHello database

Teachers and their students’ families can access USAHello’s FindHello to find local resources for legal help and assistance. While creating a safe learning environment for all of their students, classroom teachers may also be called upon by students’ family members with questions about legalization and naturalization. It helps to have some background knowledge of how the process works.

Even before the DAPA and expanded DACA decision, there were several possible paths for undocumented immigrants to become Green Card holders. Although not everyone will qualify for these paths, they are worth learning about: Green Card through Marriage to a U.S. Citizen or LPR, DREAMers Green Card through Employment with LIFE Act Protection, Asylum Status, and U Visa for Victims of Crime. Find information about green cards from USCIS.

Citizenship and GED® courses

USAHello offers a free online citizenship course and free online GED®/HiSet™/TASC classes. The citizenship course and GED® classes are self-paced so participants can learn on their own schedule. Teachers are encouraged to pass this information along to their families.

a young woman teacher helping little girl
Resources for teachers and supporters

Sign up for our online professional development class or find cultural background information about refugees and asylum seekers – useful for professional educators and anyone who wants to support newcomer families.

Find resources
Opinions expressed and advice given in USAHello’s Voices and Hello blogs are the writers’ own. USAHello offers impartial information and online courses to help newcomers in the USA.