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Educating for empathy: Developing spaces of belonging for Latino newcomers in secondary schools

Introduction by: Lisa Pamela Lopez-Escobar and Sophia Rodriguez University of Maryland, College Park

Guest Blogger: Sandra N. Gutiérrez, PhD Student, University of Maryland, College Park

March 1, 2023

In this week’s blog, UMD doctoral student in Applied Linguistics & Language Education and Teacher Education & Professional Development, Sandra Gutiérrez, sends a call to action to all educators working with adolescent newcomer Latinx youth. Highlighting the need for strong trusting relationships amongst educators and students, Gutiérrez outlines five actions educators can take to create spaces of belonging and empathy. These actions are designed to develop educators’ critical consciousness, or their awareness of the structural inequalities newcomer youth face, to begin viewing newcomer youth as co-creators of these spaces. These research-based strategies are intended to be a guide for inclusive educator practice. We are grateful for Sandra’s extensive professional experiences that inform her research, and are excited to see more work from her soon!

We welcome additional comments and reflections, please email us at: or through the Immigrant Ed Next website.

By Sandra N. Gutiérrez

Approximately 2.2 million first-generation immigrant children live in the US. Almost 60% of these children are Latino, accounting for about 5.7% of students in grades 6-12. Many of these Latino youth are newcomers facing multiple obstacles to emotional well-being and academic success. Thus, despite the fact that Latino immigrants see education as a path to success, 15% of foreign-born Latino youth do not finish high school.

Teachers wonder how to support secondary Latino newcomers. A critical step is to implement bilingual education and sheltered instruction models that have been proven effective for multilingual learners. However, instructional strategies will not bear fruit if teachers do not develop supportive relationships with students rooted in equity.

This blog challenges educators, particularly those in immigrant-serving schools, to engage in five actions to develop the critical consciousness needed to build positive relationships and spaces of empathy and belonging.

  1. Understand the US immigration system and how it affects your students

US laws authorize migration based on certain criteria such as family reunification, refugees status, and having specific skills. However, the number of individuals who qualify are capped below existing needs, and regular migration processes take decades. In addition, US economic interests and international policies continue to fuel irregular migration. For many Latino youth, this leads to dangerous journeys across several countries. Furthermore, children of Latino immigrant families who migrate in stages experience extended separations and stressful family reunifications.

The most affected my immigration laws are undocumented students. It is estimated that 22% of Latino youth are unauthorized immigrants. Although Plyler v. Doe (1982) granted undocumented students legal access to k-12 public schools, these students live in fear of deportation and are blocked from accessing employment or higher education. Moreover, immigration enforcement efforts result in declining mental health, attendance, and achievement among all immigrant students.

Unfortunately, many teachers lack awareness of immigration policies. Thus, it is crucial for educators to become informed about immigration laws and how these affect their students.

2. Learn about the roots of your students’ migration and their journeys

Educators must understand the historical, racial, and economic inequities that force Latino youth to migrate. Although the majority of Latino migrants are from Mexico, an increasing number come from other countries such a Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, and Venezuela where too many have experienced poverty, violence, natural disasters, and/or political turmoil. Understanding the realities of your students’ sending countries is key to connecting with them.

Educators can create safe spaces for immigrant students with varying legal statuses to share their immigration journeys by engaging them in one-on-one conversations and journaling, including different types of migration histories/stories in their curriculum, creating spaces for peer solidarity, and signaling that their classrooms are safe spaces regardless of status. However, educators should never directly request, nor share their students’ immigration status.

3. Understand the systemic barriers that your students face

Once in the United States, what immigrant students bring from their home countries and the realities they encounter affect their educational trajectories. Some Latino immigrants with higher formal education and income fare better due to their social capital, but many are challenged by limited formal education and poverty. Research shows that newcomers are more likely to live in low-income neighborhoods, attend segregated schools, and have limited access to school mentors. Although family networks may provide support, this is not guaranteed because relatives may be overwhelmed themselves. Furthermore, Latino newcomer youth are more likely than their peers to work and 64% report sending remittances to their countries of origin. Understanding the structural obstacles students face, as well as their responsibilities to their families, is essential to extending empathy and mobilizing support.

4. Unpack and address personal and structural racial bias and oppression

Since whiteness is entangled with US citizenship, Latino undocumented immigrant youth are particularly affected by racism. They are profiled, surveilled, and penalized during daily interactions with school personnel and local authorities, resulting in isolation and lack of belonging. Interrupting deeply ingrained racist practices and sustaining linguistic, literate, and cultural pluralism in schools requires teachers who see all students as fully human and deserving of love, connection, confianza, and powerful learning experiences. This necessitates developing critical racial literacy, unlearning internal biases, and interrupting racism.

5. Affirm and promote your students’ funds of knowledge and home language

Only focusing on structural barriers can obscure Latino newcomers’ many assets. Immigrant youth consistently report valuing education and are often socialized to be bien educados (well-educated); to interact with community and family collaboratively. Additionally, Latino immigrant children have vast funds of knowledge, which are skills and knowledge that have been developed historically and culturally within their communities. These values and knowledge need to be affirmed and tapped into by educators.

Since only 11% of districts have bilingual programs at the high school level, most Latino newcomer youth are served by educational models that do not promote their home language. This is tragic considering research is clear about the advantages of bilingualism, including improved cognitive functioning, academic achievement, and college readiness. Even if their schools do not offer bilingual programs, educators can support and leverage bilingualism and biliteracy as a resource by designing lessons that promote students’ use of their full linguistic repertoire, and treating bilingual discourse as a norm.

In sum, educators must develop concientización - a deep awareness of who their Latino newcomers are and the structural inequities they face - in order to co-create spaces of empathy, belonging, and success with them.

Further Reading for Educators


I have chosen to use the term Latino in this piece because this is the word used by Latino students who I used to work with as an educator. In my personal life, I use Latinx and Latine to describe my community.

There is no consistent definition of newcomers among researchers, school districts and practitioners.

Be sure to follow us or tweet about #ImmigrantEdNext

Suggested Citation: Lopez-Escobar, L., Rodriguez, S. & Gutiérrez, S., (2023, March 1). What can educators do to develop empathy and spaces of belonging for Latino newcomers in secondary schools? Immigrant Ed Next.

Copyright © 2022: Sophia Rodriguez, Immigrant Ed Next-All Rights Reserved

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