Teaching about Immigration, Asylum, and Family Separation at the US-Mexico Border: A Toolkit for K-12 Educators and Parents

Teaching Empathy
Jul 26, 2019 · 17 min read

By Elisheva Cohen and Lindsey Passenger Wieck

Photo by Mitch Lensink on Unsplash

As parents and educators, the news of families separated at our southern border has hit us hard. We are heartbroken by the images and stories of the poor living conditions that children and their families face during their prolonged detention, as well as by US efforts to uphold the “zero tolerance policy.” These horrific events have brought our country’s ongoing political debates about immigration to the forefront, and we all must take action.

As educators and parents with a commitment to social justice, we believe we must respond to these events in our classrooms and our homes. As we engage children in dialogue about these difficult and important civic and human rights issues, we prepare them to be active and engaged citizens. As many of these resources demonstrate, political and social conflict about immigration, borders, and belonging recur throughout American history and contemporary times, and these battles will likely continue to be fought in subsequent generations. These resources can help provide children with knowledge and skills to empower them to take action in response to family separation at the border, as well as in future debates about immigration issues.

As children continue to hear about family separation in the news and as these conversations seep into our schools and classrooms, K-12 teachers can foster respect and empathy while guiding students in these conversations. However, while schools expect teachers to promote knowledge, skills, and attitudes that engage students in current events, teachers are not always provided with the tools and strategies necessary to do so. We recognize that, for many teachers, preparing lessons and leading conversations around difficult and controversial topics such as family separation and immigration policy can be overwhelming, intimidating, and downright scary.

With this collection of resources, we seek to provide educators and parents with resources to help create a space to discuss the family separations and immigration challenges facing the US. right now. While we recognize that this topic is politically fraught, we hope these resources will enable parents and educators to contextualize US. immigration historically, to promote critical analysis of evidence in order to understand these issues, and to discuss them in a way that fosters empathy and civic engagement.

About this Toolkit: This toolkit groups resources into six categories to help educators and parents teach about family separation and immigration in the US. in both historic and contemporary contests. Within each topic is an annotated list of resources, including its date of publication, recognizing that debates and current events constantly shift and change. We encourage parents and educators to adapt these resources to fit the needs of their children or students and the context of their family or school.

The six categories of resources found below include:

Strategies for Discussing Immigration and Family Separation

Each of these resources provides a starting point for considering how to approach talking to our children and our students about immigration, family separation, today’s vicious news cycles, and human rights violations.

How to Talk to Children about Immigration and Family Separation, by Brittany Murias, Little Feminist blog(June 2018). Grade Level: Elementary and Middle School.

This article helps parents and educators talk to children about this difficult topic by teaching and modeling empathy and honesty. It includes nine tips for discussion as well as five books for children ages 5 to 11 to help students explore the experiences of immigration and family separation.

How to Talk about the News of Family Separations at the Border, by Maria O. Alvarez, Common Sense Media(June 2018). Grade Level: All Grades.

This resource provides ten ways that adults can talk to children about the seemingly non-stop news and social media coverage of immigration and family separation at the border. Although this resource is aimed at parents, many of the approaches can be adapted for the classroom.

Resources for Talking and Teaching About Immigrant Family Separation, by Re-Imagining Migration, Share My Lesson(February 2019). Grade Level: Middle and High School.

The first part of this resource overviews the recent “zero tolerance” policy and immigrant family separation, and it links to reliable sources about the issue, including the US Department of Justice, PBS News Hour, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the US Department of Health and Human Services. The second part provides strategies and tools for teaching about the topic. It encourages teachers to clearly identify lesson goals and objectives, introduces word clouds and graffiti boards as teaching tools, and offers strategies to promote social awareness.

Human Rights Education Handbook: Methods for Human Rights Education and Techniques for Human Rights Education. Grade Level: All Grades.

These two chapters from the Human Rights Education Handbook catalog participatory teaching approaches to use in human rights education (HRE). These methods empower students to conduct independent analysis and enable teachers to include human rights-related skills, attitudes, values, and actions in the classroom. The HRE techniques build on the methodologies with concrete tools and strategies for implementation. These methods and techniques can be adopted to teach about family separation and immigration.

Photo by Katie Moum on Unsplash

Background Information on Family Separation and US Immigration Policy

Often, we hesitate to discuss a topic — especially a controversial one — because we feel we don’t understand its nuances. These resources contextualize family separation and US immigration policy for parents and teachers to better understand, engage with, and teach about these topics.

Divided, Part 1: How Family Separations Started and Divided, Part 2: The Chaos of Reunification, The Daily (podcast) from the New York Times (August 2018).

In the first of this two-part podcast, reporters Annie Correal and Caitlin Dickerson outline the development of the recent practice and policy of family separation and its repercussions for over two thousand children separated from their parents. Part 2 of the podcast explains why the government could not meet the court order to reunite the separated families.

Family Separation Isn’t New, by Natalie Escobar, the Atlantic (August 2018).

In this brief history of family separation at the US border, Escobar argues that while the nature of family separation today is unprecedented, family separation through migration is not a new phenomenon.

Children Have Been Separated from their Families for Generations: Why Trump’s Policy was Different, by Gordon Lynch, The Conversation (June 2018).

In this article, Lynch outlines various forms of state-sanctioned family separation that have occurred throughout history across the Anglophone world. He compares and contrasts these events with family separation taking place today.

The Complicated History of Asylum in America — Explained, by The Week (April 2019).

This article historicizes the asylum process in the US. It outlines national and international law relating to asylum-seeking and illustrates how the policies came to be as they are today.

Ten Myths About Immigration, by Teaching Tolerance (Spring 2011).

To create a culture of empathy when teaching about immigration and family separation, it is often necessary to first dispel misperceptions about the topic. This article breaks down ten myths, including topics like jobs and immigration economics, the immigration process, and legal issues. The site also includes extensive citations and an accompanying middle and high school lesson.

Central America’s Violent Northern Triangle, Rocio Cara Labrador and Danielle Renwick, the Council on Foreign Relations (June 2018).

Much attention has been given to US immigration policies and the reception and treatment of migrants and asylum seekers from Central America. Less is known about the push factors that have lead people to endure the long and dangerous journey to the United States. This article details the violent conditions of the Central American Northern Triangle, the causes of this violence, and the US response to these conditions.

Explaining Trump’s Executive Order on Family Separation, by Charlie Savage, The New York Times (June 2018).

In 2018, President Trump signed an executive order supposedly ending the administrator’s policy of family separation. This article explains the executive order, what it entails, and how we got to the point of needing such an order.

Border Trilogy, a podcast by Radiolab (March and April 2018).

In this three-part podcast, Radiolab investigates the historical development of the “prevention by deterrence” policy, the lives impacted by the policy, and the drastic rise of migrant deaths in the Arizona desert that resulted from it. These podcasts take listeners through the Sonoran Desert, into a high school in El Paso, Texas, to the offices of the US Border Patrol and into the home of a family who lost a loved one in the desert.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

Kids Books on Immigration and Family Separation

Children may hear about immigration and family separation in the news or study it in school, but books and stories can be powerful tools to humanize these topics. Stories can help students explore the personal emotions and experiences attached to immigration while building empathy and understanding for immigrant children and families. The books below, organized by age and grade level, can engage kids and teens with relatable stories about migration and family separation. When possible, we included books that are bilingual or that have English and Spanish versions available.

La Frontera: El viaje con papa / My Journey with Papa, by Deborah Mills and Alfredo Alva. (Bilingual). Grade Level: Elementary School.

This bilingual book tells Alva’s story of migrating with his father from La Ceja, Mexico to the US. Depicting the family’s struggles in Mexico, the book shows the difficult decision families face in choosing to migrate to the US with children. One review describes that this book “humanizes US immigration policy conversations and statistics. It offers young readers a chance to engage with the lived experiences of one immigrant boy and extension the many immigrant narratives the echo Alva’s.”

Soñadores | Dreamers, by Yuyi Morales. (Spanish and English versions available). Grade Level: Elementary School.

This beautifully illustrated book celebrates the importance of books and libraries in the author’s own migration story. The author explains, “Dreamers is a celebration of what migrantes bring with them when they leave their homes. It’s a story about family. And it’s a story to remind us that we are all dreamers, bringing our own gifts wherever we roam.”

Mama’s Nightingale: A Story of Immigration and Separation, by Edwidge Danticat. Grade Level: Elementary School.

In this book, the main character, Saya, faces her mother being sent to an immigrant detention center. The story traces Saya’s visits to her mother and the folk stories her mother tells her and her own burgeoning activism and advocacy via letter writing on behalf of her mother.

My Diary from Here to There/Mi diario de aqui hasta alla by Amada Irma Perez. (Bilingual). Grade Level: Elementary School.

Alongside gorgeous mural-style illustrations, this book chronicles Amada and her family’s story of migrating from Juarez, Mexico to Los Angeles in the US through a series of bilingual journal entries. The book speaks to courage, persistence, and strength through times of change.

Dos conejos blancos | Two White Rabbits, by Jairo Buitrago. (Spanish and English versions available). Grade Level: Elementary (K-2).

In this book, a girl travels with her father and her two white bunnies north on the roof of a train known as la Bestia (the Beast). She observes her surroundings — clouds, animals, soldiers — which shows a child’s perspective of migration. One review notes the book’s rich symbolism (e.g. the presence of coyotes throughout the book, representing the human smugglers (coyotes) who bring migrants across the border). An educator’s guide by We Love Children’s Books contains language arts activities that pair with this book.

Refugee, by Alan Gratz. Grade Level: Late Elementary and Middle School (grades 3–8).

This book shows that the process of immigration is timeless by linking the stories of Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud: “JOSEF is a Jewish boy living in 1930s Nazi Germany. With the threat of concentration camps looming, he and his family board a ship bound for the other side of the world…ISABEL is a Cuban girl in 1994. With riots and unrest plaguing her country, she and her family set out on a raft, hoping to find safety in America…MAHMOUD is a Syrian boy in 2015. With his homeland torn apart by violence and destruction, he and his family begin a long trek toward Europe.” The publisher includes a lesson (grades 3–8) and discussion guide. In this article, 8th grade teacher Katie Sluiter details how she used Refugee in her classroom. This book is a popular choice for showing immigration to the US. as a long process involving migrants from all over the world.

Esperanza renace | Esperanza Rising, by Pam Muñoz Ryan (Spanish and English versions). Grade Level: Middle School.

Esperanza and her mother fled their ranch in Mexico during the Great Depression. They end up in a camp for laborers in California, where she must reconcile her living conditions and identity in this new place. Ryan’s grandmother’s “riches-to-rags” story of migration from Mexico to California in the 1930s inspired the story. Scholastic has teaching resources available.

El único destino | The Only Road, by Alexandra Diaz. (Spanish and English versions). Grade Level: Middle School.

Jaime, a 12-year-old Guatamalan, wakes one day to find his cousin Miguel dead. Miguel, another victim of gang violence, was killed by the Alphas, a gang known for its drug trafficking. Jaime flees with his cousin Ángela, seeking his older brother in New Mexico. Based on a true story, this book makes clear the difficult decision that many migrants face in leaving home — understanding that leaving offers their only chance at living a better life.

La linea, by Anna Jaramillo. Grade Level: Middle School.

After six years of being separated from his parents who had migrated to California, Miguel finally at age fifteen had his chance to travel to the border, la línea, to find them. He faces many dangers on his trip northward with his younger sister — a desert crossing, thieves, border guards. They eventually climb onto the train, riding it north. This narrative shows the physical, emotional, and psychological turmoil faced by kids as they migrate, seeking family, stability, and a better life. Teaching Books has lesson resources available.

Darkroom: A Memoir in Black & White, by Lila Q. Weaver. Grade Level: Middle and High School.

Darkroom is Weaver’s autobiographical graphic novel. In 1961, she migrated as a five-year-old with her family from Argentina to Alabama. She details her childhood as an educated middle-class Latina growing up in the Jim Crow South. Weaver, who was neither black nor white, struggled to find her place in the US. with its racial tensions including segregation and discrimination.

Solito, Solita: Crossing Borders with Youth Refugees from Central America, edited by Jonathan Freedman and Steven Mayers. Grade Level: High School.

Fifteen young people who fled their homes in Central America and crossed the border into the United States tell their stories in this book. In these stories, the reader meets youth such as Adrian, from Guatemala City, who fled to the US after his mother was killed only to be detained by ICE on his eighteenth birthday and Rosa, a Salvadoran mother who walked through the jungles between Guatemala and Mexico with her daughter to get to the US. Teachers can download lesson plans to go along with this book

Additional books on immigrants, refugees, and asylum in the US.

Photo by Yannis A on Unsplash

Lesson Plans and Guides

An Educator’s Guide to the Immigration Debate, by Maureen Costello, Teaching Tolerance (2014). Grade Level: All Grades.

This article provides adults with essential background knowledge about the current immigration debate by putting it in its historical context. It suggests that teachers use this historical framing to shape discussions about current immigration policies, practices and responses. The article concludes with suggested topics and questions that adults can use to facilitate dialogue.

Documenting Stories of Immigration in Your Community: A Manual for Teachers and Students, by What Kids Can Do. Grade Level: All Grades.

This step-by-step guide leads teachers and students in creating a book to document stories of immigrants in their own communities. The process walks students through identifying interviewees, developing interview questions, conducting interviews (including obtaining participants’ consent), and transforming interviews into essays. In this process, students gain powerful insight into different immigration experiences. This resource builds on learning about immigration and provides tools for taking action locally.

Understanding Immigration Reform, by PBS Newshour (November 2012). Grade Level: Middle and High School.

In this two-part lesson, students learn about immigration and consider their own opinions on immigration reform. Students build research skills by conducting independent research on various perspectives on immigration reform and practice debating these perspectives thoughtfully and respectfully. Students read primary sources to learn about relevant legislation and build writing skills by writing a persuasive essay, letter to the editor, or email to a government representative about immigration reform.

Study Guide: How Separating Families became Official US Government Policy, on sharemylesson.com (June 2018). Grade Level: Middle and High School.

This study guide helps students explore the question: “Why has the Trump Administration’s zero tolerance policy on undocumented immigrants caused such a controversy?” by reading an article and watching a video from PBS Newshour. The lesson includes discussion questions to engage students in discussion and debate.

Solito, Solita: Crossing Borders with Youth Refugees, by Voice of Witness. Grade Level: Middle School and High School.

In this collection of five units based on the 15 stories from the book, Solito, Solita, students engage with refugee narratives to gain a deeper understanding of migration and asylum. These detailed lessons address topics including asylum and sanctuary, the power of storytelling to counter dominant narratives, the theory of cultural wealth, and liberation. Lesson plans include handouts, graphic organizers, and links to articles, videos, and photos. You can preview an adapted story from Solito, Solita, here.

The Power of Photographs from Vietnam to the Border Crisis, by PBS Newshour (July 2019). Grade Level: Middle and High School.

In this lesson, students consider the impact of graphic photographs on public opinion and the role of photography in the media. This lesson includes a range of photographs and teachers can select which photographs to use in their classroom based on knowledge of their students and their community.

Family Separation at the U.S. Border, by Facing History and Ourselves. Grade Level: High School.

These activities provide students with information about the family separation policy as well as opportunities to reflect on its impact on families and children. It links to a podcast and two articles to help students understand the policy, and it has three activities to help students emotionally process the content.

Seeking Asylum in the United States, by the Choices Program. Grade Level: High School.

This lesson plan introduces students to the laws, policies, and processes of applying for asylum in the US. This resource also links to short video lectures about immigration in the US and other related lesson plans.

Teaching Activity for “Hundreds of Immigrant Children Have Been Taken from Parents at US Border,” by The New York Times (April 2018). Grade Level: High School.

This activity introduces US policies of asylum and asks students to consider what they know about child separation. The activity provides discussion questions for teachers to use with a New York Times article, “Hundreds of Immigrant Children have Been Taken from Parents at US Border.” These questions push students to consider the application of US policy and children’s experiences, along with how this articles presents information.

Deconstructing the Wall: Teaching about Symbolism, Politics and Reality of the US-Mexico Border, by the New York Times (January 2019). Grade Level: High School.

This lesson encourages students to unpack the symbolism of walls. As students cycle through three different stations, they use an interactive New York Times website about security measures at the border, watch a short video, and analyze graphs and charts to examine public policy and practice at the border.

Photo by Nitish Meena on Unsplash

Taking Action

Students learning about family separation, US immigration policy, and the horrors taking place at the US-Mexico border may want to translate that knowledge into action. The resources that follow provide parents and teachers with ways to promote civic engagement and empower students with tools and strategies to make a difference.

Writing Letters to Legislators and Leaders. Grade Level: All Grades

After learning about family separation and immigration in the US, students may be interested in voicing their opinions in a way that matters. This resource helps children understand how to identify their congressperson and reach out to them. These instructions guide children in writing letters in protest of the Homestead Detention center, but they can be adapted to address family separation and immigration more broadly. This middle and high school lesson by Teaching Tolerance guides students in researching an issue, identifying the person, company, or institution to whom they should address their advocacy, drafting letters, and reflecting upon the process. By writing letters to corporate or elected officials, students practice articulating their opinions and writing persuasively to make a difference.

Guides for Civic and Activist Action Action. Grade Level: All Grades.

Ideas for Civic Action in a Time of Uncertainty outlines five steps students can pursue to collaboratively take action on civic issues. Author Steven Zemelman emphasizes the importance of allowing students to identify the key issue and ensuring that their work culminates in action are essential to making the experience empowering for young people. In this article, Youth Service America outlines its model for taking action awareness, service, advocacy, and philanthropy, and ways that these four elements can be employed to address family separation and immigration.

#ToImmigrantsWithLove. Grade Level: All Grades

Families and classrooms can conduct fundraisers and donate money to organizations that support separated families and immigrants. This resource provides a list of recommended organizations that collect such donations.

Taking Action on Immigration Detention: A Summary of Reported Recommendations. Grade Level: All Grades

This list collects ideas for individuals, families and groups to support immigrants, including attending rallies, making donations, and being an ally to immigrants. We encourage adults to be creative and consider ways to engage young people in these activities.

Book and Letter Drives for Detained Children, Grade Level: All Grades

In this activity, a student selects their favorite book, writes why it is their favorite book, and shares it with a child in an immigrant detention center. Through this activity, children build empathy by developing a personal connection to detailed children. This resource provides information about four different pen pal programs through with children, families, and classrooms can communicate directly with migrants in detention.

Strategies for Supporting Immigrant Students and Families

As educators and parents, another way we can support immigrant students and families is by welcoming them into our schools and communities, helping connect them to local resources, and cultivating a safe and inclusive environment that meets their physical, mental, and emotional needs.

How to Support Immigrant Students and Families, by Colorín Colorado.

This guide contains over fifty strategies for supporting immigrant students and families in educational and community settings. Strategies include topics like building partnerships with immigrant families, providing socio-emotional support for students, and offering staff training. A shortened version is also available.

Supporting Students from Immigrant Families, by Tolerance.org.

Categories of resources included on this list include supporting English Language Learners, Safe Zones and ICE Raids, Classroom Resources, and School Climate.

This is Not a Drill, by Julia Delacroix and Coshandra Dillard, Teaching Tolerance(Fall 2018).

While schools have become vulnerable to ICE raids and enforcement of deportation policies, schools remain a powerful space for providing a community for immigrants. This article and its accompanying toolkit offer strategies for supporting immigrant students and families.

Bridging Refugee Youth and Services: School Resources, by Bridging Refugee Youth and Services.

Educators can face a range of challenges supporting immigrant and refugee youth, including figuring out how to support students with interrupted education, engaging parents in the schools, creating compassionate environments, and addressing the impacts of trauma. This website offers a series of webinars that help educators and school personnel address these and other issues related to supporting refugee students.

Thanks for reading! We encourage you to share your favorite resources in the comments below.

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Teaching Empathy

Written by

A cooperative project by Dr. Lindsey Passenger Wieck and Dr. Elisheva Cohen to curate educational resources for teachers and parents.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn | Listen to our podcast at aoapodcast.com | Connecting 500k+ monthly readers with 1,200+ authors

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