Undocumented Students

For undocumented students, close relationships with teachers and guidance counselors can make a world of difference, says education and immigration expert Roberto Gonzales. Educators can not only provide much-needed emotional support; they can also be the resource these students and their families need to stay safe and participate fully in their communities.

If a student discloses his or her status and asks for advice, you don’t have to have all the answers right away, says Gonzales, who spent 12 years chronicling the experiences of undocumented young people for his book Lives in Limbo. More important is acknowledging the student’s concerns and telling the student that you’ll figure it out together — and then talk to colleagues, visit local community centers, or find answers online. Tell the student, “I can find ways to better help you.”

SUPPORTING UNDOCUMENTED LEARNERS IN MIDDLE AND HIGH SCHOOL

Help families and children understand their rights. Schools are legally forbidden from asking about immigration status, and some students may not disclose (or may not know) their status. Districts and schools with immigrant populations should communicate proactively with all families, with messages of inclusion and to encourage DACA enrollment and renewal, as modeled by this resource from the Boston Public Schools and by a new BPS website called We Dream Together, designed for students. From early on, they should spread the message to students that everyone can aspire to go to college and pursue interests and career goals. That message should include the fact that undocumented students can legally attend college in the U.S.

 

Create a strong mentoring system. Gonzales identified a single characteristic shared by each of the high-achieving undocumented students he followed: “To the person, they could name three or four adult mentors in their lives,” he says. “These were teachers, counselors, adults within the school community who really helped forge a pathway for them.”

Look to colleges as a model for student services. At the postsecondary level, some colleges have taken the lead by creating resource centers for undocumented students, and these have been effective at providing the specific support these students need, Gonzales says. These resource centers include an identified staff person who acts as a liaison to students in navigating the bureaucracy of higher education. They also provide trainings for staff and faculty, and they convene support groups and clubs for undocumented students.

Stay aware of the challenges of adolescence. Navigating adolescence is challenging for all children, but it’s uniquely so for undocumented children, who may contend with stigma, exclusion, or self-seclusion or secrecy that families often feel compelled to impose. With DACA, “there are more supports to prevent kids from falling off,” Gonzales says. “There are new opportunities for guidance, allowing these young people and their families some breathing room — some chance to maintain their aspirations.”