Practical guide helps teachers protect refugee children

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AFT members see the struggle experienced by immigrant and refugee children every day, in their classrooms, on campus and in their offices. Now they have a guide that will make it easier to reach out a helping hand.

The AFT's "Immigrant and Refugee Children: A Guide for Educators and School Support Staff," which launched during the United We Dream Congress June 10-12, includes both background information on immigration— especially for refugee asylum seekers crossing the border from Mexico—and practical advice for families threatened by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) immigration raids, deportation and detention.

Graphic from guide on helping refugee childrenApproximately 2.5 million undocumented youth live in the United States. Each of them has the legal right to a public education, regardless of their citizenship or residency status. But the emotional toll of immigration raids and the threat of deportation hanging over the heads of children and teens often create problems with absenteeism, behavior and academic progress. More than 4 million U.S.-born children live in mixed-status households, and they, too, are affected by increased enforcement.

The guide outlines basic facts about immigration, including why so many young people have moved to the U.S. from Central America—many are fleeing gang violence, crime and human trafficking; others are trying to reconnect with family members already living in the U.S. It quantifies the movement: Since 2014, more than 100,000 unaccompanied children have sought refuge in the United States, primarily from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The guide describes what an ICE raid can be like: large groups of armed agents who sometimes come with no warrant in predawn hours and sometimes target youth whose status has changed because they have recently turned 18. It explains what happens if someone is arrested, using a step-by-step "home raid-to-deportation map" to describe the process.

Relevant immigration law also is outlined in the guide: For example, it explains that ICE is prohibited from raids on school property, at hospitals, during funerals, weddings and other public religious ceremonies, and at public demonstrations; and it notes that schools are prohibited from providing information from a student's file to federal immigration agents without a parent's consent.

But most useful are the guide's practical tools for those who want to help. "Creating a safe space where students can come to you for support and advice is the best thing you can do for your students," it tells educators. Informing students and their families of their rights is one of the most important directives, and the guide provides a list of "What to do if ICE comes to your door," which can be posted. Among the advice: Don't open the door because agents must have a warrant. Don't speak without first consulting an attorney.

Other suggestions for educators include:

  • Work with parents to develop a family immigration-raid emergency plan. (Who will take care of the children? Save money for attorney fees.)
  • Provide a safe place for students to wait if a parent or sibling has been detained.
  • Provide counseling for students who have had a family member detained.
  • Maintain a list of resources such as pro bono attorneys, immigration advocates and social workers.

Other suggestions include issuing statements condemning the raids; writing letters to the Department of Homeland Security in support of individual students who have been detained; and adopting school and district resolutions to protect students from ICE agents on school campuses, to treat students equitably and to train teachers on how to deal with immigration issues. These are practical steps to fight back against the attacks that are eroding the trust that educators work hard to build with the students and families they serve.

Meanwhile, the AFT is also working at the policy level, fighting for immigration reform and fair policies that treat all families with respect and dignity—and, as the presidential election heats up, fighting against the vitriol and hate espoused by the Republican candidate. A new website outlines the AFT's position on immigration, provides resources, and opportunities to take action.

The "Immigrant and Refugee Children" guide is available online at or in paper form by emailing your request to Cesar Moreno Perez. It was developed by the AFT in partnership with United We Dream, the National Immigration Law Center and First Focus.

[Virginia Myers]