Supporting Children in Immigrant Families: A Back-to-School Checklist for Educators

By Rebecca Ullrich

It’s that time of year again: back to school. Across the country, families are completing doctors’ appointments and immunization requirements, stocking up on school supplies, signing up for after-school activities, and meeting new teachers. And educators are going through many of the same September rituals as they welcome students for a new year.

But for millions of immigrant families, the back-to-school buzz may be clouded by a persistent fear for their safety. An estimated 1.6 million children under the age of 5 and an additional 3.5 million school-age children have at least one undocumented parent. The vast majority (80 percent) of these children are U.S. citizens, with older children being more likely to be undocumented themselves. The Trump Administration broadened the category of immigrants who are prioritized for deportation, making almost every undocumented immigrant subject to removal. Consequently, detainment rates are up by almost 40 percent over the course of the last year. The threat of increased enforcement actions alone is enough to create a chilling effect, leaving families fearful of leaving their homes. Increasing concerns about the connection between immigration agents and school resource officers and Trump’s recent decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program fuels their worries further.

It is critical that educators and administrators in preschools, elementary schools, child care programs, and Head Start programs are prepared to support immigrant families and are aware of the laws that protect them and their children. Here’s what you should know: 

  1. All personnel, and families, should be familiar with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s sensitive locations policy, which restricts immigration enforcement actions at or near certain “sensitive locations,” including schools, bus stops, preschools, child care, and other early learning programs. In the Philadelphia School District, every employee received training on what to do if immigration agents arrive on school property and how to communicate with families who have limited English proficiency. Ensuring that staff members are knowledgeable about such policies allows them to reassure parents about their children’s safety.
  2. Schools and early childhood programs can also serve as important points of connection to information and resources in the community, such as legal and mental health services. The Los Angeles Unified School District’s “We are One” campaign includes comprehensive resources for immigrant families about their legal and educational rights, eligibility for health care and other public assistance programs, and how to make a safety plan.
  3. Schools and early childhood programs should also be prepared to meet children’s mental and behavioral health needs and to communicate effectively with parents about how best to support children’s success. Research consistently demonstrates that the fear of being separated from a parent due to immigration enforcement actions has significant negative effects on children’s mental health. Consequently, educators may find that children in immigrant families are experiencing heightened anxiety, aggression, or withdrawal in the classroom.

Every child deserves the opportunity to learn and grow in an environment where they feel safe and supported. Educators and administrators have a responsibility to uphold the rights of children in immigrant families, equip themselves with important information and resources, and create welcoming environments for all children.

Additional Resources: 

For more information, see CLASP’s webinar and resource list for early childhood educators.

Read the U.S. Department of Education’s Sensitive Locations Fact Sheet.

Read our FAQ on the educational rights of immigrant children.