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October 19, 2023

Undocumented Immigrants: What Teachers Need to Know

Class discussions of the history, facts and stories of unauthorized immigrants can move the immigration narrative away from one that is fear-based and “othering” to a more inclusive and nuanced understanding of the role undocumented immigrants play in our country, communities and schools.

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Immigration is one of the most contentious issues in American politics today, and debates about undocumented immigrants in particular can generate more heat than light. When these topics spill into the classroom, teachers often report feeling unprepared and ill-equipped. This overview gives teachers the basis to facilitate discussions about unauthorized immigration with students in a way that is fact-based, promotes compassion, and makes all students feel welcomed and included.

A Note on Terminology

We use the term “undocumented” or “unauthorized” rather than “illegal” when referring to people. The word “undocumented” includes all immigrants who reside in the United States without legal status. A “mixed-status family” is a household with members of different immigration and citizenship statuses.

Who Are Undocumented Immigrants?

The latest estimates indicate there are more than 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., many of whom are parents or caregivers of school-age children. More than 620,000 students in grades K-12 are undocumented, and more than 3.9 million K-12 students are U.S. citizens but have at least one undocumented parent. Mexico is the largest country of origin, followed by Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and India. Undocumented immigrants live across the U.S., yet they tend to be highly concentrated in just 20 major metropolitan areas, such as New York, Los Angeles, Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth. Most undocumented immigrants work. While they are overrepresented in jobs such as farming, construction and child care, some states allow undocumented immigrants to receive teacher certification. In short, undocumented immigrants are our students, their caregivers and our colleagues.

 A Brief History

Because there were no federal laws controlling international migration for the first hundred years of the United States, there were no undocumented immigrants in that time. Today, most undocumented Americans enter the country legally and lose their legal status over time. Some undocumented immigrants have attained temporary protections through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, better known as DACA. This program is only open to a subset of young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children, and its future is in doubt. People in this program are protected from automatic deportation and receive work authorization, but they are still unauthorized and have no clear path to citizenship.

Famous Undocumented Immigrants

Fears of detention and deportation lead most undocumented immigrants to try to keep their status a secret, but some have gone public. Sharing their stories with students has a number of benefits. It can humanize their experiences, encouraging empathy and compassion. It can provide a sense of empowerment and community for undocumented students. Further, it underlines the important contributions that immigrants, authorized or not, have made to our country. Use the following stories of three famous immigrants who are or were undocumented as a starting point. Interested in more stories? Read The Immigrant Learning Center’s post on Seven Famous Undocumented/DACA Immigrants.

Lue Gim Gong

Lue Gim Gong, Horticulturalist, 1860 – 1925

The $6.7 billion Florida citrus industry owes a lot to Lue Gim Gong’s mother. She taught her son pollination techniques while raising him in China. As an adult in the U.S., he would use those techniques to breed so many valuable new varieties of fruits that he gained the nickname the “Citrus Wizard.”

American farmers almost missed the opportunity to benefit from Lue Gim Gong’s expertise. The Chinese Exclusion Act barred him from entering the U.S., but he managed to get around it with forged documents and the support of a family farm in Florida. There he focused on cultivating plants that were resistant to early Florida frosts that could wipe out a farmer’s livelihood. He developed tomatoes with higher yields and grapefruits that dropped at optimal times; but he is best known for developing an early-ripening variety of sweet orange that bears his name. The Lue Gim Gong variety of the Valencia orange is still popular more than a century later and has saved the farming industry millions of dollars.  

Lue Gim Gong was among the first undocumented immigrants to the United States. Before the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, there were no federal laws dictating who could or couldn’t enter the country, so it was impossible to enter “illegally.” The act was passed due to the perception that Chinese Americans were stealing jobs from U.S.-born Americans, despite these immigrants making up just 0.002 percent of the population. This led to widespread discrimination and excluded many people from contributing more to the United States.

Jose Antonio Vargas

Jose Antonio Vargas, Journalist/ Activist, 1981

At 30 years old, Jose Antonio Vargas had what appeared to be an enviably successful life. After coming to the U.S. from the Philippines to live with his grandparents at age 12, he earned a full scholarship to college and took a series of prestigious journalism jobs that netted him a Pulitzer Prize among other accolades. Vargas risked it all when he wrote the New York Times article “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant,” which detailed how he had navigated his life after discovering he was undocumented as a teen. In “coming out” as an undocumented immigrant, he put himself at risk of deportation, but he was inspired by the young activists who were sharing their legal status to fight for immigration reform. In the article, he wrote, “I’m done running … . I’ve decided to come forward, own up to what I’ve done.”

In the years since, Vargas has certainly done so. He founded the not-for-profit Define American, which works to change the prevailing narrative about undocumented immigrants and share facts about immigration in the U.S. Vargas has also highlighted the unique challenges facing LGBTQIA+ undocumented immigrants like himself, who until recently, were unable to regularize their status via a federally recognized same-sex marriage. He continued to share his own story via the documentary Documented: A film by an undocumented American, the book Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen and testimony in front of Congress. He used his new status as the most famous openly undocumented American to advocate for other people in less-privileged positions.

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, Writer/Activist, 1989

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio made waves when she “came out” as undocumented shortly before graduating from Harvard. Her extraordinary story as the first openly undocumented immigrant to graduate from Harvard was shocking, but Villavicencio turned down the immediate offers to pen a memoir. Instead, she decided to share the stories of people less privileged than her, traveling the country to interview farm workers, delivery workers and other undocumented blue-collar workers. 

She began writing the morning after the 2016 election. The resulting book, The Undocumented Americans, was recognized by the New York Times for covering “vigilantly guarded communities whose stories are largely absent from modern journalism and literature.” Villavicencio has recently received permanent residency but plans on continuing to write and share the stories of undocumented Americans.

Supporting Undocumented Families

In addition to educating all students about unauthorized immigration, educators are in a prime position to support undocumented and mixed-status students and families. They can provide emotional support, connect families with resources and advocate for their rights. What are some of their rights? Undocumented children have the right to a free public education. They also have the right to privacy; schools are legally forbidden from asking families about their immigration status. It is possible for undocumented students to access higher education, although they have more restrictions than their peers.

When the topic of unauthorized immigration comes up in the classroom, teachers have the opportunity to share history, facts and stories with their students. These discussions can move the immigration narrative away from one that is fear-based and “othering” to a more inclusive and nuanced understanding of the role undocumented immigrants play in our country, communities and schools.

Bringing Immigrant Contributions and Narratives to Life in U.S. History

Learn how to use The Immigrant Learning Center’s free Teaching Immigration series to incorporate immigration into social studies topics you are already teaching. Help your middle and high school students to do the critical work of making connections between history and the present day and inspire them to consider their place in this history as it continues. Leave this session with classroom-ready lessons, activities, and instructional resources appropriate for grade 5-12 students.

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The Immigrant Learning Center

The Teaching Immigration series equips teachers with tested, contemporary tools and strategies to incorporate immigration across the curriculum, teach English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), create more welcoming classrooms, foster understanding and empathy, and center the immigrant voice in

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