How Schools Can Create Welcoming Spaces for Kids in Immigrant Families

By Hannah Liu

Across immigrant communities, families deeply value education and recognize its role in building a foundation for their children’s futures. More than 600,000 K-12 students are Dreamers – undocumented immigrants who entered the United States as children  – and nearly 4 million U.S. citizen students have at least one undocumented parent.

Education has been long established as a fundamental right for all in the United States. Yet immigrant children and children in immigrant families face challenges such as barriers to enrollment, language access issues, and fears related to immigration enforcement. Certain groups of immigrant children encounter additional challenges to accessing education, including:

Unaccompanied Children (UCs) – Children under the age of 18 who entered the United States without a parent or guardian accompanying them. UCs are placed in the temporary custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement before they are released to a sponsor, who may or may not be a relative. UCs may lack documentation when they enroll in schools and may have experienced migration-related trauma.

Migratory Children – Children whose families are highly mobile due to their work in seasonal industries, i.e., farmwork and fishing. Migratory children may switch residences and school districts often, which can disrupt their education.

With some policymakers attempting to undermine the right to education for all and banning racial equity from curricula, it is especially important for teachers, staff, school administrators, and districts to create welcoming spaces for all students. This means taking intentional steps to make classrooms accessible and help families feel safe and supported.

The U.S. Department of Education has released new fact sheets to help schools protect access to education for unaccompanied children and migratory students. The fact sheets detail that schools are required to:

  1. Be open to all students regardless of their or their parents’ immigration status.
  2. Offer language assistance services to students who have limited English proficiency so that they can meaningfully participate.
  3. Make information about enrollment, classes, and other educational programs accessible to parents and guardians with limited English proficiency.

Schools can also play an essential role in mitigating the harms of immigration enforcement, which can cause kids to miss school and hinder their achievement. There are several ways that schools can ensure all children are able to fully participate in educational programs and activities:

  • Adopt a safe space policy – Under the “Protected Areas” policy, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is prohibited from conducting enforcement on or near school property – as well as other places children gather – except in limited circumstances. However, ICE does not consistently adhere to this policy. To reinforce Protected Areas policy, schools and districts can adopt safe space resolutions that affirm schools as safe havens from immigration enforcement and protect immigrant families’ data privacy.
  • Ensure that all staff are trained and informed – School districts must provide trainings on working with immigrant children and children in immigrant families. These trainings should include best practices for working with children and youth who have experienced trauma. They should also include information on the rights of immigrant students and families to avoid creating any confusion or chilling effect (e.g., requesting a Social Security number or information on immigration status during enrollment).
  • Undertake robust outreach to immigrant families – Schools should consider any hesitation many immigrant families experience when accessing public or social services, including schools, as a result of immigration policies. Schools can serve as important community hubs to connect families to essential information (e.g., partnering with local organizations to host Know Your Rights sessions) and resources such as food assistance and health care.

Ultimately, policymakers must ensure that educational funding levels meet the needs of schools to adequately support immigrant families. This means providing resources for translators, ESL programs, additional counselors, training, and supplies.

These resources include ways to support immigrant students and families: