Now more than ever: Best practices for working with immigrant youth

by Jean Rhodes

Editor’s note: Mentors who are working with the many immigrant children in our country are, no doubt, concerned about the immigration-related policies of the former administration, including its the anti-immigration rhetoric and hate incidents/speech of recent months. Although President Biden is seeking to reverse many of the measures, and restore DACA, the policies and events of the past few months have been destabilizing and threatening to many of our nation’s youth of color. Professor Carola Suárez-Orozco, an expert on immigrant youth, has offered some recommendations that are as relevant as ever.

Understand the challenges. Programs should encourage mentors who are working with immigrant children to understand the challenges facing their mentees. These may include:

  • Poverty: Many children of immigrants have parents with lower educational backgrounds and arrive with high levels of poverty, known risk factors for a host of poor outcomes.
  • Separations: 75% of immigrant children experience a parental separation, ranging from  from two to ten years, with less privileged children enduring longer separations. Such separations are very disruptive, as are parental reunifications since many children have re-attached to substitute parents. In this sense many immigrant children have suffered two losses.
  • Language acquisition—Learning a new language takes much longer than the average U.S. citizen appreciates. As Professor Suárez-Orozco observed “Most Americans haven’t learned a second language so they really don’t know what’s involved. Many assume that it only takes one year, which is fine for playground conversations, but it takes five to seven years of good, solid, consistent, high quality language instruction to gain the full grasp needed to write, take multiple choice tests, and learn sophisticated concepts. In most schools, we simply do not have sufficient infrastructure for language instruction and immersion is not particularly effective.”
  • Anxiety—The U.S. immigration policy has contributed to a growing number of undocumented parents and the end DACA may lead to more deportations. With children’s dawning recognition that their parents could be deported at any moment comes feelings of anxiety, instability, and fear.
  • Struggles with school closures–gaps in technology and broadband have made it particularly difficult for many marginalized students to remain engaged during COVID-19.

Develop a strengths-based understanding Despite the challenges noted above, it is important to consider the resilience and sheer grit it often takes for a family to migrate to a new country. In fact, only about 3% of the world’s population migrates from one country to another. As Professor Suárez-Orozco notes, “it is important to keep in mind that immigrants are not the “pobrecitos” [Spanish for poor little ones] they are so often portrayed as. Instead, they and their families are often incredibly resilient. After all, it takes a lot of chutzpah to leave your home and all of your connections to journey to the US. Even during Germany’s Weimar Republic, only a few citizens left. People want to stay in their homes and communities and they tried to assuage themselves that it would get better.” The people who make the journey to a new country are incredibly tough. In fact, researchers have noted how second and third generation students often don’t do as well as the first, which is often unusually tenacious.

Understand the culture Mentors may have preconceived notions of cultures, but should take time to understand what matters to the mentee and their parents. This includes understanding the family’s worldview, the role of religion, what pushed them out of their country, and what was happening when they left.

  • Read history, but also memoirs and novels set in the culture. When Professor Suárez-Orozco was assigned a mentee from Haiti, she started reading up about the history of the Island. “Our vision is that it’s a “pobrecitos place,” but Haiti was the first free black nation in the Caribbean. I made a point of reading novels that were set in the area as well as a memoir.”
  • Take it slow Professor Suárez-Orozco emphasizes the importance of patience. “Don’t just go barging into your mentee’s family with, “So what brought you here?” Instead, let disclosures happen organically.
  • Be a great listener Mentors should not assume that they know much and be great listeners. Your mentee will appreciate it.

Be respectful of the mentees’ parents Mentors should recognize that, as outsiders, they’re walking a fine line, and that their relationship with their mentee’s parents may be fraught. Professor Suárez-Orozco recommends a warm, deferential stance with parents, “let them feed you if they offer, take note of their points of pride (e.g., wedding pictures, diplomas), show them your own photos and, at all times, remain humble and kind.

Recognize that immigrants are not a monolith Most immigrant families value education and have the cognitive flexibility that comes with bilingualism. But it’s also important to note that 25% of immigrants have parents with more education and more privilege than the average American. Indeed, many have gained a strong foothold in the American economy and have accumulated some degree of wealth. A remarkable 30% of businesses in Silicon Valley are founded by immigrants and, on average, 40% of spelling bee winners are immigrants. As Professor Suárez-Orozcoconcluded, “there’s enormous wealth of diversity in what we call Immigrant America.”

Check your biases No matter how you feel about immigration, the fact remains that we are a nation of immigrants. As noted, 25% of the children under 18 years old (and 33% of those between 18 and 30 years olds) are immigrants or are the children of immigrants. This is a huge swath of the American population that cannot simply be ignored or vilified. Even if we figured out how to fulfill some politicians’ dreams of walling off our borders, 11 million immigrants are already in the country. Consequently, we need an infrastructure in place to manage their pathways to naturalization. And, importantly, non-immigrant Americans need a deeper empathy and a recognition of immigrants’ diverse experiences and  many contributions to the fabric of American life.

More recently, Carola teamed up with her husband (another leading expert) and their colleague to write an excellent piece on the topic. It was posted yesterday on  Reimagining Immigration, to help guide teachers and mentors in working with children and adolescents navigate these difficulties.

By Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, Carola Suarez-Orozco, and Adam Strom

The young people entering schools this fall are the most diverse group of student’s in the history of the nation. One-quarter of them are of immigrant origin, from nearly every country in the world. That diversity is not limited to the United States, indeed, increasing numbers of migrants and the children of migrants enter schools, around the world, eager to learn. Unfortunately, the messages they are getting from the wider world often run counter to the conditions we try to create in our classrooms. Hate speech, divisive political rhetoric, a rash of hate incidents in and around schools, combined with increased deportations of undocumented immigrants in the U.S., has many teachers and students on edge.

We’ve been hearing from young people, migrants and non-migrants alike, that many of them are afraid. In such a polarized climate, it is easy to understand. However, many immigrant children have very specific, and immediate, concerns. While there are few DACA recipients among K-12 students, there is tremendous uncertainty over the fate of many of their closest relatives including siblings, parents, grandparents, and cousins–family members who care for our students and the very people that they love. Further, in many classrooms, peers are witnessing their friends and classmates trying to navigate this turbulence.

As educators, are we aware of what our students are going through? And, what should we be doing about it? Here are a few tangible suggestions for the short and long term….

  • In today’s climate, many immigrant children may be reticent to speak. If you care to listen, however, you will hear narratives of resilience, grit, and optimism. We need to create space to have students share their stories. Jean Michel Dissard, the Director of the acclaimed documentary I Learn America, describes these narratives as “windows to new worlds, communities, and cultures.”
  • In schools [and other settings], all too often, migrants and the children of immigration are isolated from their peers. We need to work to break down that isolation whenever and wherever possible.
  • One way to do that is for students—all students—to share their families’ experiences of migration. In the U.S., migration is both history and destiny. From the arrival of the First Nations of native peoples to European explorers seeking treasure and religious freedom to the mass involuntary migrations of enslaved Africans to the trans-oceanic migrations of yesterday and the ongoing global migration of today, migration defines the American experience. We have created a free storytelling app with guiding questions that can structure these lessons.
  • The lessons of integration are not just for new arrivals—they are equally important for children of receiving communities.  Too many projects aimed at engaging migrant youth are treated as one-off experiences and not integrated into the academic life of schools. Teaching about immigration for one or two days a year in a history class, or including an occasional reading by an immigrant author in a syllabus does not do justice to this defining dimension of the human experience. Through the histories we teach, and the literature we read, we can find ways to recognize the similarities and differences in the experience of migrant students to earlier American sagas of migration and immigration. Helping students to recognize historical patterns and discontinuities can empower them with the knowledge to counter myths and misinformation.

…We need to equip a generation of young people with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to work to build bridges between newcomers and receiving communities. This is the task of the next of our next generation — our shared future depends on it.

Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, Dean—UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, Co-Founder, Re-Imagining Migration, Carola Suárez-Orozco, Professor, UCLA, Co-Founder, Re-Imagining Migration, and Adam Strom, Re-Imagining Migration, Director, Re-Imagining Migration,