Becoming Building Blocks of Support for Undocumented Students in our Classrooms

By: Catalina Adorno

Two of the most “controversial” debates happening in our country right now are about public education and immigration. Regardless of what one may think, these issues go hand in hand. Last summer, with the images flooding our news feeds and televisions about child immigrants from Central America, many people were left questioning the role of our schools in educating these children: is it our responsibility to teach them?

One thing many people fail to remember–even people in the education field–is that regardless of one’s legal status, immigrant children are still guaranteed a free public K-12 education under a court decision known as Plyler v. Doe of 1982. This court case established that states “cannot constitutionally deny students a free public education on account of their immigration status.” Furthermore, these children should not be barred from being enrolled in public schools based on their parents’ immigration status either. The U.S. Department of Education even released a memo and fact sheet highlighting educational services for immigrant children including those who recently arrived to the United States. In short, yes, undocumented students are guaranteed and should receive a free K-12 public education just like any other child in the United States.

This brings us to the education of undocumented students already living in the United States whom the media and public more commonly refer to as “Dreamers.” These are students who came to the United States as children and have lived and are living in the United States, but have no documented status (meaning no citizenship, no Visas, no permanent resident cards, etc). Many of these students want to obtain an education in the United States yet face many barriers linked to their undocumented status. A recent report released by UCLA indicates that undergraduate undocumented students not only face troubles financing their education, but also have other worries. Many undocumented students have to live with the fear of possibly being deported–or their mother, father, sister, or brother being deported. These are fears that do not suddenly emerge, but are fears that have been with many of them throughout their elementary and secondary education. And yet, we encounter undocumented students who have been pushed to step out of the shadows and to say they are undocumented and unafraid. It is now time for teachers to to join them in this chant!

Although being a teacher in this environment of toxic politics can sometimes feel, and be, limiting, there are still some things we can do to support undocumented students in our classrooms:

  1. Help provide a safe school and classroom environment. Put up posters and visuals that represent migration and diversity.
  2. Be active and intentional about creating dialogue about the needs and challenges, as well as the merits and attributes, of undocumented and immigrant youth/students.
  3. Incorporate books, articles, and discussions around the root causes of migration.
  4. If you are an administrator, incorporate professional development for your staff on understanding the challenges undocumented students face and, most importantly, how to protect the privacy of undocumented students.
  5. Make information and resources available for students. Recently, we have seen new policies and laws that can affect undocumented students, such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), in-state tuition at the state level and/or state aid laws, etc. Make sure that this information is available to students.
  6. Identify available scholarships. At the secondary school level, it is important that educators help students who are thinking about or planning on going to college to find scholarships that do not require citizenship or U.S residency.
  7. Learn about how your school’s policy regarding enrollment of undocumented students. Is there one? If so, how easy to navigate is it for parents who may not speak the language or do not understand the U.S. education system?
  8. Be open-minded. Not all undocumented students are Spanish-speaking or enrolled in ESL classes. Be prepared to challenge your own assumptions about undocumented students.
  9. Talk to other teachers and educators about common experiences teaching immigrant children.
  10. Join student activists and organizers in fighting for equal access to education for all students regardless of status!*

Most importantly, understand that we cannot go around asking students if they are undocumented. However, we can open our own minds and use safe classroom practices so that if there are undocumented students in the classroom who need our support, they can count on us. Furthermore, let’s all come together and share practices we can use in the classroom to better support undocumented students.


*These suggestions are based on Undocumented Students in Higher Education, a study published by Fairfield University and Jesuit University partners in 2013. The study can be found here: and A Guide for Educators and School Support Staff, which can be found here:


About the Author

Catalina Adorno is a graduate student of Science Education at Teachers College – Columbia University. She is also a member of the New Jersey Youth for Immigrant Liberation, a coalition of immigrant youth organizations in New Jersey; she advocates for education equality for all students regarding of immigration status. She can be reached via email at

One thought on “Becoming Building Blocks of Support for Undocumented Students in our Classrooms

  1. Pingback: Reflecting on Deculturization in Schools | Young Teachers Collective

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s