We Have Your Back: How Educators Can Support Undocumented Students - Higher Education
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We Have Your Back: How Educators Can Support Undocumented Students

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by Maria Ferrera and Bernadette Sanchez


In the wake of Donald Trump’s election as president, many undocumented college students, like Indira Islas, have reported distress, anxiety and fears, not only for their own situations but for their families. Patrick Magoon, president and CEO of Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, reported an increased demand for counseling services in colleges and schools, and calls to mental health hotlines have increased by 200% at the state level and 250% at the national level.

Dr. Maria Ferrera

Dr. Maria Ferrera

President Trump has pledged to end the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which would threaten the education and future of 700,000 undocumented students who are registered under the program. Students, faculty and staff on college campuses across the country have responded by asking their school leaders to make their institutions sanctuary campuses; asking their institutions to protect their undocumented students by not offering information about these students and allowing them to be deported.

How far colleges can or will go to establish sanctuary campuses is uncertain, but in the meantime, educators on college campuses can offer support to undocumented students.

As faculty members who conduct research and do community activism on issues related to undocumented students at DePaul University, a campus that has pledged solidarity with undocumented students, we have found  seven ways that educators can support undocumented college students.

Consider the symbol your institution represents and the role that education plays in students’ hopes and dreams.

Understand that being undocumented is only one aspect of a student’s multifaceted identity, and that their legal status does not encompass all of who they are.  Their identities and aspirations are complex, deep and diverse and their education is a path that fulfills these various identities. For undocumented students, or DREAMERS, your educational institution represents not only growth in knowledge, economic and social capital, but also a key to the world around them – an open door to opportunity, affirmation as human beings who are valued and of worth, capable of important and necessary work.  Many of them, through their education, feel they have been granted the privilege and opportunity to do great things.  In this context, they are affirmed — they are not regarded as “alien” or “illegal” — they are not othered. Your ongoing commitment to them as an educator and mentor providing rich opportunities in their everyday life is a significant contribution to their sense of being valued.

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Make your position known and encourage others to do the same.

The increase in hate crimes and racial incidents on college campuses in the aftermath of the election affirms the level of hostility immigrant students experience on a regular basis. Our silence and passivity often allows these incidents to occur under the guise of free speech. Students marginalized by the intersections of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, historical oppression, in addition to legal status are vulnerable to discrimination, blatant hate crimes, and microaggressions on a daily basis. Be vocal about being their ally, as the sociopolitical climate gives them reason to increasingly feel unsafe and distrustful of others.  Further, undocumented students will be at risk should their immigration status be revealed to authorities.  Protect their privacy and avoid revealing confidential, sensitive information about students. Encourage your colleagues and institutional leaders to do the same. Our students need to be reassured that we have their back.

Make your classroom a space that invites critical dialogue but does not tolerate hate.

State in your syllabus that you welcome debate, free speech, and critical dialogue, but will not tolerate hate and discrimination in your class. Talk about this on the first day of class. Encourage students to talk with you if they have concerns about how they are treated in your class.  Each moment in your class has the potential to be transformative for good or ill.  Students can feel easily dismissed or degraded in a single moment. Think about ways you can prevent this in the context of your class.

Be aware of the array of resources available to students in your institution and within their community.

While we create a safe space in our classroom and students become comfortable discussing their concerns, most college educators are not trained counselors. Provide a list of resources (e.g., counseling services, spiritual/campus ministries support services, “know your rights” material) that students can take advantage of if they need emotional or psychological support. Some of your students may be currently experiencing or have experienced some level of trauma in their lifetime or recent past, such as losing (or fear of losing) a sister, aunt, mother or father to deportation; experiencing a hate crime or series of microaggressions; witnessing violence within their neighborhood.  Students may be experiencing various levels of distress, anxiety, depression or may be actively suicidal.  If your institution hasn’t provided a list, gather a list of legal and mental health resources, as well as community-based resources that may assist your students and their families who may be in crisis for various reasons. Heightened or urgent communication with student advisors and student counseling services may be needed.

  A First, More Than Half of University of New Mexico Freshmen Are Minorities

You can be a strong ally, no matter your discipline.

The context of growing diversity and global immigration warrants conceptual frameworks that embrace cultural pluralism and affirms the traumas of historical oppression. Teach intentionally from a social justice, human rights and immigrant rights perspective that seeks to expand structural equality for immigrant and other minority groups in multiple realms. Treat undocumented students as human beings by listening to them, giving voice to them in the classroom (but not necessarily outing them), and valuing their thoughts and opinions about course content.

Dr. Bernadette Sanchez

Dr. Bernadette Sanchez

These behaviors communicate to undocumented students that they matter and that they have something to contribute. They need to hear this message in the face of a dominant narrative in our society that believes that they don’t have anything to offer, that they don’t contribute anything valuable, and that, if anything, they are draining our society. Do not underestimate your influence and the positive impact you have on them. Further, stay informed and be active within your own community and in coalition building.  Urge your representatives and legislators to support congressional efforts to protect DACA students and all others who are undocumented.

Be aware of your own sense of vulnerabilities as an educator with regard to culture and difference.

You may be an expert in your field, but engage in cultural humility. Interrogate and challenge the views of others as well as your own.  Engage in difficult yet necessary dialogue with students and colleagues. Invite the university diversity officer or other administrator in charge of supporting undocumented students at your campus to a faculty brownbag. Hear from the administrator about students’ challenges on the ground at your institution, and encourage faculty to discuss means of support. Recognize that you may have important learning to do or potential biases to address. As students witness your humility, willingness and ability to be vulnerable and honest, they may feel more comfortable to do the same in your class.  This may assist in deeper, more authentic dialogue in class about difficult issues that involve race and difference.

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Reach out

You can maintain a healthy and appropriate boundary with students while still being human with them as an educator.  If you witness students not attending class, losing grade points, or if there are “red flag” signs of distress in how they manage interactions with you or others in class, reach out to them.  Simple communications that begin with “I am concerned or I noticed that …” (e.g. you missing classes, your performance on a project, how you responded to your classmate) that is posed with non-judgmental attitude and genuine concern, may help students be honest about what is challenging them and the help they may need. Learning about students’ challenges will help you to determine the kind of resources and support they need to succeed in your course.

Dr. Maria Ferrera is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Social Work at DePaul University. She conducts research on health disparities and mental health within immigrant communities as well as ethnic identity development among minority and immigrant youth.

Dr. Bernadette Sánchez, a Public Voices Fellow, is a Professor in the Department of Psychology at DePaul University. She conducts research on mentoring relationships and education among urban, low-income adolescents of color.

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