The Human Face of Immigration

"So,” Mindi Rappaport asks the eighth-graders in her English class, “What’s going on these days with immigration?  How do you feel about it?”

The students, in the leafy and historic town of Ridgefield, Conn., jump in eagerly to talk about what they know and what they’ve heard.  It’s not long before their consensus is clear: Legal immigrants are good, model residents; “illegals” are very bad.

You can’t blame them for reaching that conclusion. After all, immigration has returned to the front burner of American politics. Last year, Arizona passed a series of laws hostile to immigrants. Thousands of Facebook users became fans of pages asserting, “This is America, I don’t want to press one for English,” and the term “anchor baby” entered our vocabulary (see No. 9 in “10 Myths About Immigration”).

In the past, nativists opposed immigration, period. The sharp distinction between “legal” and “illegal” immigrants emerged fairly recently, according to immigration historian David Reimers, a professor of history at New York University. “Basically, by the mid-90s ‘legal’ immigration was no longer an issue,” he says. “The hot-button issue became the undocumented immigrants.”

That makes immigration a powder keg for teachers. It’s a deeply important part of American history, a part of nearly everyone’s family legacy and present in almost every community. Many educators agree that concentrating on the power of personal stories helps students see how today’s immigrants are not that different from those in the past. 

A Nation of Immigrants
Most people living in the United States are here because someone in the last 400 years came here from somewhere else. Immigrant experiences are naturally strong for first- and second-generation immigrant families. But Reimer says that memories and language skills typically tend to fade by the third generation. It’s hard to understand the immigrant experience if your family has forgotten it. And forgetting, as Reimer suggests, has long been a part of assimilation.

Mindi Rappaport’s classroom—which we’ll return to later—is filled with students whose families have lost track of their roots. But across the country, in another eighth-grade English classroom, sit students whose immigration experience is firsthand.

Welcome to Dale Rosine’s class at Grace Yokley Middle School in Ontario, Calif. From time to time, Rosine sees new immigrants arrive in her class. When they first get there, she says, they are uncomfortable and afraid.

Sixty percent of Ontario’s population is Latino, with many people tracing their U.S. roots back to the 19th century. Like the rest of Southern California, Ontario is a divided camp when it comes to immigration. While unauthorized immigration is a hot political issue, the immigrants are a part of the fabric of life, with a cultural heritage shared by most residents. “Many people understand the reasons people come, [while] others are frustrated with the process,” Rosine says, adding that right now, “It has lots to do with economics.” 

Rosine worries about her students. “Some of the students from Mexico talk about the way they feel disrespected and second-rate in society,” she says. “They see what their parents go through, what lies ahead, and what’s going to be available to them.”

“Some of them are really in pain,” she says.

The Family Heritage Project
Rosine was determined to use the students’ own experiences as a guide.

Her “Family Heritage” project aims to connect students—all of them—to their family backgrounds while promoting diversity and understanding in the classroom. “I look at students who see themselves as not smart, not worthwhile,” she says. “I try to build on what they can do and raise the expectations they have for themselves.”

She begins with the play The Diary of Anne Frank. She and her students discuss prejudice, oppression and Anne’s statement that “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

Halfway through the play, Rosine outlines the project. It calls for students to conduct family research, but not the “family tree” assignment, which experts warn can be painful for children who are adopted or fostered or whose families are separated. For children in those situations, Rosine suggests that they “choose the family who you see as family.”

Under Rosine’s guidance, students ask family members about their cultural heritage and the challenges they had to overcome. The students ask questions like, “Who came here [to the United States or to California] first?” and “What difficulties did they face?” Her students build a cultural identity for themselves as well as a family history of resilience.

Sometimes, Rosine admits, there’s reluctance from children whose families say, “Oh, we don’t know anything” about their origins. But a story usually emerges.

Rosine is after a real story, not just a cultural bazaar. She encourages her students to find out about the oppression and prejudice buried in the family history, and to ask elders to talk about the family’s hardships and worries. Some of her immigrant students talk about what it’s like to come over the border, she says, and they give voice to “the feeling of desperation and the fear of being deported.” Others, from all over the world, relate how their families were separated for years while one member in the United States worked to arrange for the others to come.

She’s had Japanese-American students who have told the story of their families being sent to internment camps and African-American students who learned about their ancestors leaving the South.

For some of her students, the experience really lowers walls. “When they hear so many kids with different backgrounds, and the difficulties they’ve had, it opens their eyes and makes their own situation seem less personal. They often remark that they thought they were the only ones who had experienced something until they heard their classmates’ stories.”

The project isn’t just about oppression, though. When they present their work, students bring in heirlooms or other items that are special to their families. “We’ve had wonderful artifacts,” Rosine says, “including Hawaiian sculpture, Filipino lanterns and ethnic clothing. We’ve also had military discharge papers and dog tags, as well as keepsakes that have been handed down for generations.”

As part of their presentations, students have shown pictures of dances and celebrations in which they’ve participated while visiting their family’s country of origin. They have also shared stories they’ve learned. Often, parents and grandparents come to class for the presentations, which are taped and photographed.

For Rosine, the payoff on the project comes when her students hear the presentations and are amazed to discover that the world is much bigger than they originally believed.

Immigration in a “White-Washed World”
Mindi Rappoport’s eighth graders at Ridgefield’s East Ridge Middle School don’t seem to have much in common with Dale Rosine’s students—except for a teacher who wants them to appreciate diversity.

Ridgefield sits just inland from Connecticut’s wealthy “gold coast.” Rappoport describes it as an affluent community “with a blue-collar feel.” The students in her English class are mainly white, with “a smattering of ethnic minorities and immigrants.”

“It’s a pretty white-washed world,” Rappoport says of the small city of Ridgefield. “I try to confront students’ limited perspectives.” The big challenge, she adds, “is that they don’t realize they have a limited perspective.”

In Connecticut, essential questions drive the curriculum. Eighth-graders are supposed to focus on the individual and society. Students in this district are challenged to ask, “What are our values and beliefs?” and “How does diversity influence us?” Rappoport’s students also grapple with stereotypes and examine “how they affect our ability to learn the truth.”

“If you ask if they have stereotypes, they’re not aware of them,” Rappoport explains. Her job, she feels, is to develop habits of self-examination.

A Tale of Two Poems
So while her students are learning about the golden door, letters home and steerage in social studies, Rappoport starts them off reading the Emma Lazarus poem “The New Colossus.”

“They think it’s wonderful,” she says.

The next day she passes out another poem, “Unguarded Gates,” written in the 1890s by Thomas Bailey Aldrich, who told a friend that he worried about “America becoming a cesspool of Europe.”

Rappoport carefully watches as her students pore over the verse. “They start out thinking, ‘Okay, here’s another nice poem.’ And then there’s this dawning realization that something … is very wrong.”

It’s the beginning of a mind-opening unit for students. They are asked to closely examine how people think about immigrants today and to question their received notions about how the other half lives.

For Rappoport, the mission is personal. Jewish, she grew up in predominantly Christian Fairfield, Conn., and remembers anti-Semitic taunts and exclusion. Her husband, who was born in Guatemala and was brought to the United States as a child, has helped her understand what today’s immigrants endure. 

After students finish reading the two poems, one celebrating those “yearning to breathe free,” and the other warning of “accents of menace alien to our air,” Rappoport begins a conversation about contemporary immigration. She starts by asking students what’s going on now and how they feel about it. 

What emerges, she says, are “lots of things you would expect.” Some of the students will mention that their housekeeper, landscaper or gas station attendant is from another place. Others will talk about the day laborers, mainly Mexican and Central American, who congregate on certain corners in the early morning hoping to snag some manual labor. 

“Then the received notions start coming out,” Rappoport says, as students begin to repeat what they’ve heard.

“They’re taking jobs.”

“They’re terrorists.”

“They bring crime and a lot of them belong to gangs.”

Agreement is general and swift that there are hard-working, good immigrants—and then there are the “illegals.”

Rappoport says it’s important not to correct students or shout them down when they make these kinds of statements. Instead Rappoport challenges students calmly. “How do you know that?” she asks. 

Before class ends, Rappoport gives students a journal assignment to write at least three pages about their feelings, thoughts and ideas on immigration.

Walking in Someone Else’s Shoes
The next day, students share some of their entries. Few have changed their minds. That’s when Rappoport shows them an episode from the Morgan Spurlock reality show 30 Days.

Rappoport discovered the show on cable’s FX channel a few years ago (it ran from 2006 to 2008). In the series, Spurlock, best known for his documentary Super Size Me, showed what happens when one person becomes immersed in another person’s life. 

The episode that got Rappoport’s attention focuses on immigration. It features Frank, a Cuban-born immigrant who is also a “Minuteman”—someone who patrols the border to guard against illegal Mexican immigration. Frank agrees to live in Los Angeles with a family of undocumented immigrants for 30 days. 

“As soon as I saw it, I thought, this would be so great to use in a classroom,” Rappoport says. “I bought the DVD and started planning.”

In the episode, Frank is strongly opposed to illegal immigration. And even though he comes to like the immigrant family with whom he’s staying, he remains adamant about his political views. The turning point comes when he visits the father’s brother in Mexico and sees firsthand the squalid conditions under which the family lived.

It’s a revealing scene for students, too, that “brings understanding and empathy,” according to Rappoport. She tells them to write another journal entry that night and revisit their feelings and thoughts. The next day, she says, it’s clear that “the factual experience has enlightened them.”

Setting the Stage
The immigrant study takes place in October, and sets the stage for the rest of the year. In May, Rappoport says, a Holocaust survivor visits the school. Before they leave for the summer—and for high school—her students often commit to remain alert to human rights issues in the world.

Neither Rosine nor Rappoport devotes much time to exploring the policy issues surrounding immigration. Their mission is to build empathy, break through common mindsets and encourage students to examine their received notions.

Immigration policy is not simple, Professor Reimers warns. The tangle of issues includes enforcement costs, disunited families, a preference system that favors some immigrants over others and a nearly 10-year-long backlog of applications that fuels unauthorized entry. It also includes the demand for low-cost workers in construction, agriculture and personal services. “It’s a complicated issue,” Reimers says, “a hard problem to solve.”

In high school, perhaps, Rappoport’s and Rosine’s students will tackle those complex policy issues in government class. When they do, they will be better prepared to understand the human dimensions.

Like this article? Get a web-exclusive lesson on debunking myths about immigration.

Illustration by Anita Kunz


NAFTA & CAFTA need to be

Submitted by Jana on 10 April 2012 - 11:37am.

NAFTA & CAFTA need to be discussed more at length. As US citizens, what part have we played in creating extreme hardship for poor farmers, etc... in Mexico & Central America due to our free trade policies? Why do poor families risk everything, including death of their children to cross the desert to come here?

Can someone please give me

Submitted by S Huntley on 25 January 2011 - 7:35pm.

Can someone please give me the name of the piece of artwork showing the 3 kids and their backgrounds on their shirts. I am an ELL teacher and would LOVE to be able to buy a poster of this image to have in my classroom.

I would just google the

Submitted by Annah on 26 January 2011 - 1:09pm.

I would just google the artist: Anita Kunz

Why is it you never do a

Submitted by dhamm55 on 25 January 2011 - 2:28pm.

Why is it you never do a story on US citizens who can't get jobs because of illegal immigrants? This what has happened in my area as well as many other places in the USA. Black Americans suffer more than any other group from high unemployment. What about US citizens who have been injured or killed due to DUI's and crime by illegal immigrants. And yes I can understand why they to the USA and I don't blame them for wanting a better life, but first as country the USA owes it's citizens protection for rights to jobs and their well being. And even though no all illegal immigrants commit major crimes they have broken the law by either overstaying or illegally entering this country. Countries like Mexico will never learn to solve any of it's problem as long it knows that is poor will come hear and sent money home. And I say Mexico because it is the main culprit country in this illegal immigrant issue.

I have no problem with a diverse society, I like it in general. But you like to pretend that all these mainly illegal Hispanic immigrants have cause problems for this county. They don't want to learn English and then the biggest mistake that we do in this country is to accomodate them by putting things in Spanich for them.
I'm sick of the push one for "English" nonsense. I have travelled to country I had to learn some of the local languge. Most other immigrant come here and either know or learn English. No so this illegal Hispanic immigrants. No, they want us to accomodate them.
So we do with K thru 12 education for their illegal kids who have no SSN's or immunization record, all of which any US citizen would have to produce in order for their children could even enroll in public school. Tell me why are they even given a free pass like that?

I used to have some compassion for some of them, but now I have no more patience for those who are illegally in this country demanding anything. They cant march and cry all they want I am done with this issue.

You said "And I say Mexico

Submitted by M on 26 January 2011 - 12:44pm.

You said "And I say Mexico because it is the main culprit country in this illegal immigrant issue." I would like to point out that many people from many different countries cross illegally through Mexico and just because a person is of spanish decent that does not make them from Mexico they could be from Central or South America. Can you prove that the majority of the illegal immigrants in this country are in fact from Mexico? You are entitled to your own opinion but if you are going to make such statement in your opinion you should be able to back it up with facts.
You also say "So we do with K thru 12 education for their illegal kids who have no SSN's or immunization record, all of which any US citizen would have to produce in order for their children could even enroll in public school. Tell me why are they even given a free pass like that?" As a US Citizen my parents did not have to furnish my ssn to enroll me in kinder many many years ago and I did not have to furnish my child's ssn either to enroll him in school, If I do not have to furnish it, what are the grounds to ask a parent who looks hispanic to furnish it? As far as an immunization record all students have to furnish one to be admitted to a school. While there are some immunization waivers becasue of religous beliefs but other than that youmust present it or you child will not be allowed to attend until they are given the required inmmunizations.
You also said "that all these mainly illegal Hispanic immigrants" illegal is illegal and while the majority may be hispanic they are not the only ones. we have tons of immigrants that are russian and asian but russian blend in with americans if they don't talk but once they do their accents give them away. The hispanic immigrants are the immigrants dummys, they fight for the dream act and amnesty and the other immigrants reap the benefits without having to judged because the hispanic immigrant bore all that.
Now I do agree with you on not having to push 1 for english. I am bilingual but I should not have to push 1 for english this is america and our language is english so if immigrants want to be here then they need to learn our language and not expect us to cater to them in their language. I too agree that the amount of money sent to other countries is outrageous.

I too agree that no one

Submitted by N on 1 February 2011 - 12:55am.

I too agree that no one should have to push one for english in this english speaking country. Although it's funny how no one EVER mentions the struggles of Brown colored immigrants (Haitians, Africans, West Indians,etc) that get captured, imprisioned, and deported quickly as soon as they get sighted by the American coast guard. I lived in south florida and saw how badly Haitian immigrants were treated compared to Spanish immigrants (Cubans,Mexicans,etc). And we have not even talked about their negative feeling towards Brown people (ie Black people) in their home country that they bring here.

I'm guessing it's a lot

Submitted by Artgirl on 12 October 2012 - 10:42am.

I'm guessing it's a lot easier to spot and stop a boat on the flat open water than it is to spot people crossing the desert. Aren't those illegal immigrants caught on land returned to their country of origin when caught as well?

dhamm55, if you're really

Submitted by Teacher on 25 January 2011 - 5:04pm.

dhamm55, if you're really interested in honest discourse about your concerns over immigration, I recommend you follow the link to the handout regarding Myths on Immigration. You might be interested to know, in response to what you posted, that

Myth #1: Immigrants take good jobs from Americans.
According to the Immigration Policy Center, a non-partisan group, research indicates there is little connection
between immigrant labor and unemployment rates of native-born workers...

Myth #2: Undocumented immigrants cause crime rates to go up.
Nationally, since 1994, the violent crime rate has declined 34 percent and the property crime rate has fallen 26
percent, even as the number of undocumented immigrants has doubled. According to the conservative Americas
Majority Foundation...

Myth #3: Undocumented immigrants don’t pay taxes but still get benefits.
Undocumented immigrants pay taxes every time they buy gas, clothes, or new appliances. They also contribute to property taxes—a main source of school funding—if they buy or rent a house, or rent an apartment. The Social Security Administration estimates that half to three-quarters of undocumented immigrants pay federal,
state and local taxes, including $6 billion to $7 billion in Social Security taxes for benefits...

Teacher, I love your facts

Submitted by Tsulu on 25 January 2011 - 7:50pm.

I love your facts for and in defence of illegal immigration. I have worked for a school downtown Los Angeles for over 7 years. 100% of our students are illegal. They are not even anchor babies. 98% of the students and their families live in our school's subsidized housing. I am talking about a 2,000 sq ft apartment (brand new) only 5 minutes on foot to the famous Los Angeles Library. Rents here are from 4,000 and up. They pay $100-300 a month on our program. 75% of the parents are unemployed or underemployed. They do not take jobs from the American worker. They are not paying property tax. They are struggling to be legalized. They had to leave their country due to massive killings because not being White in Mexico automatically puts you on the bottom of the ladder with no way up.
For or against immigration? I think this article and your points both failed to see both sides of the issue.
I immigrated to the US from China, but I had my papers in order BEFORE I left. My Two best friends from Mexico simply walked into the office in Mexico City, made application and got their papers to go to the US. In China it is NOT that easy. So, why don't more Mexican immigrants do that? Your article failed to mention the economical benifets of being illegal. If you need to know what they are, please come to visit my school and I can share it with you. Having illegal friends shows you all the loop holes and easy money there is to be had in the US including Universal Health Care. It already exsists in the US, if you know how to access it!!! And best thing is that you do not have to pay anything. But WHY for illegals and not everyone else? So, if you pretend to be an illegal, you can get all these benefits too!

Tsulu, you claim that the

Submitted by student on 28 January 2011 - 1:40am.

Tsulu, you claim that the article and the comments from Teacher "missed both sides of the issue." The side you present is solely economic. If that is your side of the issue so be it, but while you claim to provide "proof" because of where you work, I hope you remember that there is a difference between an exception and a rule. You paint with a broad brush and your claims certainly do not represent all immigrants. If you cannot recognize that, then it is you that has missed a side of the issue and the most important one at that. The side of the issue is tolerance and it is the one Teacher, this article, this website attempts to get across. Without tolerance, we open the world to prejudice and hate among each other. Let us not forget that it was a lack of tolerance that led to the Chinese Exclusion Act which lasted over 60 years.