What Do I Say to Students About Immigration Orders?

Educators are fielding questions from students about recently issued executive orders on immigration, refugee resettlement and a U.S.-Mexico border wall. Here are some suggestions for how to best answer students.


@Tolerance_org  The [M]uslim students seem scared and quiet. One says family may flee country. These are six year olds.
—A first-grade teacher’s tweet to Teaching Tolerance, January 30, 2017

We are 50% ELL (language learners – mostly refugee populations). Although my kids are almost all US citizens, their grandparents or some parents are refugees from other countries. The ‘build the wall’ and deportation rhetoric has been very scary for them.
—An elementary-grade educator’s response on a Teaching Tolerance survey, November 14, 2016 

Just as during the presidential campaign, current events are hitting home with many students, and teachers have to be ready to talk about these topics. We know that, in many classrooms, students are asking about last week’s events, including President Donald Trump’s executive orders. 

Schools with immigrant, undocumented and refugee students are likely to see heightened anxieties and fears among students due to two executive orders: 1) a directive to start immediate construction on a border wall with Mexico and 2) a 90-day ban on citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, and a 120-day suspension on refugee admissions into the United States (indefinitely for Syrian refugees). Recent U.S. population data shows that over 17 million children ages 18 and younger live with at least one immigrant parent. This means that students with direct ties to other countries account for about 25 percent of children in the United States—and these students are in our classrooms every day. We also know that immigrant and refugee students are more concentrated in particular states, school districts and schools. For example, 58 percent of children with immigrant parents live in one of five states: California, Texas, New York, Florida and Illinois.


What do I say to students?

Your voice—and other students’ voices—matter. A full 80 percent of the educators who responded to our post-election survey described heightened anxiety and concern on the part of students worried about the impact of the election on themselves and their families. The biggest fear of all comes from immigrants; nearly 1,000 teachers specifically named “deportation” or family separation as a concern among students. In this context, it’s important to give your students a safe space to voice their fears and concerns. Depending on your grade level, this could be through academic conversations around a text or article, opinion writing prompts, artwork, journaling or simply a one-on-one during recess or lunch.

I’m here for you. Students of all ages need to know they have an advocate and an ally in you. As their teacher, counselor, coach or administrator, students will look to you as a trusted adult outside of their family for help and optimism in the face of the unknown. As an educator, you are one of the first to witness the impact of increased enforcement against immigrant, unaccompanied and refugee students. This guide highlights ways you can support, empower and mentor your targeted immigrant and refugee students.

Also remind students that there are other people—beyond their classroom or school community—on their side. Find examples of office holders, volunteer attorneys, community members, activists and protesters who have issued statements (op-eds, social media posts, announcements, messages on posters and so forth) in support of students or students’ identity groups.

You have the right to be in this school, learning, no matter where you are from or what your citizenship or residency status is. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the landmark 1982 court case Plyler v. Doe ruled that public schools must enroll and register every child who resides in their geographic boundaries, regardless of the child’s or parents’ immigration status. This means that students are in a safe place while they are at school, and it is important to emphasize that repeatedly to students. Consider displaying this poster (available in English and Spanish) in your school or classroom as a way to show all students they are welcome.

Here are the facts. It’s hard to keep up with each new piece of information—and determine whether it’s true or an opinion—as the news is streaming in. It’s important not to let students repeat false information or perpetuate myths about immigrants and Muslims, as this can cause more anxiety and tension. Curate accurate, reliable articles for your students, and insist that they engage with facts. This video series about how walls are going up on borders all over the world shows how this is an issue both in the United States and abroad, while giving voice to both sides of the argument.

There is a lot happening right now; it’s OK to be confused. Sometimes educators don’t have the answers. Sometimes we stand before our students without the right words, and that’s OK. While we want the best for our students and their families, it’s important not to promise them anything you cannot guarantee. These are uncertain times and new policies and protests are happening simultaneously.


What additional steps can I take on my own or with colleagues?

Review our most-requested school climate materials. These materials contain tools, protocols and practical advice for making your school more open and welcoming to all students. Like all of our materials, these resources are free to download, print and use in your school. Each has an accompanying on-demand professional development webinar. (Last week, we sent a package of these materials to every school in the country. Ask your administrator to be on the lookout for this package. If you’re an administrator, consider determining how to share these resources with staff.)

Double down on anti-bullying strategies. Encourage everyone in the school community to be aware of bullying, harassment and bias in all their forms. Remind them of the school’s written policies, and set the expectation that your staff be ready to act. Not everyone has to be a superhero, but everyone can be an ally and an upstander.

Make sure you can spot signs of trauma, and learn how you can help. Proactively applying trauma-informed classroom strategies benefits all students. Students respond positively when educators get to know their individual circumstances, affirm their identities and cultivate empathy in the classroom. Find tips for identifying trauma in students and recommended responses here.  

Encourage courage. It’s especially important to let staff and students know that you expect them to speak up when they see or hear something that denigrates any member of the school community. When students interrupt biased language, calmly ask questions, correct misinformation and echo others who do the same, they send their peers a clear message: This kind of language doesn’t fly here.

Take action to combat Islamophobia in your classroom or school. Use these resources to offer facts and perspectives that can help correct misinformation, improve school safety and offer examples of how students across the country have responded in the face of Islamophobia.

Expelling Islamophobia
A magazine feature story that explains why anti-hate and anti-bullying policies aren’t enough in the fight against Islamophobia in schools.

Muslim Students in America
What's it like to be a Muslim student in the United States? In this video, hear what five young people from across the country have to say.

What Is the Truth About American Muslims?
A publication co-produced by the Interfaith Alliance and the Religious Freedom Project of the First Amendment Center that debunks damaging stereotypes about Muslims in the United States. It also includes a section on religious freedom under the U.S. Constitution.

Extreme Prejudice
A magazine feature story about why it’s necessary to teach about religious radicalism. The story has an accompanying lesson-based toolkit.

Dressing in Solidarity
A magazine feature story about a school that rallied around its Muslim students after an anti-Muslim hate crime.

Youth United! Enough Is Enough
A video feature about a school that lost a student to an anti-Muslim hate crime and how, after the tragedy, his classmates took action to establish a community-wide culture of respect, love and understanding. (Great for sharing with kids!)

Religious Diversity in the Classroom: Fostering a Culture of Respect
A webinar co-produced by TT and the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding about how to make your classroom a safe learning space for students of all religious and nonreligious beliefs.

Debunking Stereotypes About Muslims and Islam
A classroom lesson in which students learn about Muslims in the United States and explore how religions are similar and unique.

Confronting Students’ Islamophobia
A blog post about a teacher’s reaction when her students resisted meeting a Muslim children’s book author.

Don’t Look Away From Garissa
A blog post about an Islamic extremist attack on a Kenyan university and the implications for students and teachers in the United States when only the negative stories about Islam make it into the news.

Lauryn Mascareñaz is a teaching and learning specialist for Teaching Tolerance.

Maya Lindberg is a writer and associate editor for Teaching Tolerance.