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Knowing Silence: Why it’s so hard to talk about immigration and education in schools today

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

Guest Blogger: Ariana Mangual Figueroa, PhD, City University of New York Graduate Center

April 24, 2024

In this week’s blog, Dr. Mangual Figueroa from the City University of New York delves into the complex terrain of culturally responsive pedagogy amidst the realities of immigrant student populations in U.S. schools. Despite decades of educational research promoting practices like "funds of knowledge" and "culturally sustaining pedagogy," teachers face a unique dilemma. Mandated to safeguard immigrant students' rights without probing into their immigration status, educators grapple with the challenge of bridging curriculum with students' lived experiences shaped by immigration. Furthermore, amidst political polarization, conservative movements threaten these inclusive practices. Teachers play a critical role in learning about immigration stories and backgrounds of the students as well as reflecting that knowledge in the curriculum and everyday pedagogies of care in classrooms. This blog explores these challenges and proposes strategies to navigate the delicate balance between protecting students and fostering culturally relevant education, inviting educators to break professional silences for a more just schooling experience.

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

By Dr. Ariana Mangual Figueroa 

Over the past three decades, there has been a growing area of educational research that examines the cultural and linguistic resources that students bring to school in the hopes of developing schooling practices that build on their knowledge to support learning. We may know this research by different names: “funds of knowledge,” “community cultural wealth,” “culturally responsive pedagogy,” and “culturally sustaining pedagogy.” Today, states and school districts across the country have adopted these research-based practices as core principles that guide teaching and learning (see, for example, New York State’s Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education Framework).

Despite these important advances in teaching, K-12 teachers are mandated to protect their immigrant student’s rights to public schooling by never inquiring about their immigration status. Teachers play an important role in welcoming students into their classrooms, regardless of immigration status, and not talking about personal immigration experiences (and status) is one way of avoiding “chilling effects” that might scare immigrant children or families. At the same time, teachers do teach immigration as a topic of study in social studies or history classes.

This has led to a kind of professional dilemma that can leave teachers tongue-tied: on the one hand we take a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to protecting student’s rights, while on the other hand we have may strive to develop culturally sustaining pedagogy that connects school learning to our student’s lives. Immigration experiences shape children’s cultural and linguistic experiences, but educators know that they are not supposed to broach the subject of immigration with their students. How can teachers best serve a population that they can’t talk about? How can teachers design curriculum relevant to their immigrant student’s lives when talk about life experiences shaped by immigration status is considered taboo?

Two Challenges 

Public school educators around the country are doing extraordinary work in this area despite facing challenges. One growing challenge that public school educators face is whether and how to develop culturally responsive and sustaining pedagogy when conservative lawmakers and supporters are working to ban the presence of the programs and materials that they need to do so. States across the country are introducing legislation aimed at dismantling school and university diversity and equity initiatives, monitoring and restricting curriculum that encourages critical thinking, and censoring books representing diverse perspectives. The deepening polarization about what topics are considered permissible in public schools and the growing fight over who controls that curriculum is making it harder for teachers to apply the principles of good teaching amassed from decades of educational research. This politically conservative movement takes research-based principles of culturally responsive teaching and turns them into risky pedagogical practices. Recent surveys of public school teachers with immigrant-origin students have shown that these teachers are fearful of the political retribution they might face from conservative community members if they teach about immigration in their classrooms.

There is a second, lesser-known challenge that teachers face when developing culturally responsive and sustaining pedagogy in schools that serve immigrant-origin students, specifically students who are undocumented or have undocumented family members. The challenge for teachers of students from these mixed-status families is to create culturally “relevant” curriculum when their students’ immigration experiences are off-limits for them to discuss. Educators working in progressive schools serving immigrant communities live with this dilemma daily. I’ll briefly expand on the origins and impacts of this second dilemma below, and you can read more about it in my forthcoming book titled Knowing SIlence: How Children Talk About Immigration Status in School

Inclusion or Invisibility?

As I mentioned above, one of the primary ways in which public school teachers and staff protect immigrant-origin students’ rights to public K-12 education in this country is by never inquiring into their students and families immigration status. This practice of “never inquiring” is meant to protect immigrant-origin students and families from having to disclose their immigration status in order to reduce the chances of their being disenfranchised from receiving a public education on the basis of their national origin and citizenship status. 

This “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to protecting students’ rights to schooling has an important history that dates back to 1982 with the Supreme Court ruling Plyler v. Doe. The Plyler ruling declared that school-aged children in this country have the right to attend a K-12 public school regardless of their or their caregivers’ and parents’ immigration status. Guidance issued by education departments at the state and federal level has interpreted the Plyler ruling to mean that school staff should never ask about the immigration status of the children and families they serve in order to protect those families' right to schooling and right to privacy (see, for example, guidance issued by the New York State Department of Education in 2010). This means that educators rarely know if one of their students or student’s family members is undocumented, thereby posing a dilemma for educators working to develop culturally relevant and equity focused curricula: how can we teach about immigration in public school classrooms today in ways that connect to students’ lived experiences and empower them to think critically without asking students to disclose their or their loved ones’ immigration status?

This dilemma, unlike the first one, is the unintended consequence of well-meaning policy aimed at fostering inclusion for immigrant students rather than the result of policies explicitly aimed at silencing and stifling efforts to increase equity and justice in education. And yet, the presence of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” mandates following Plyler–coupled with the political polarization in this country surrounding the topic of immigration–means that we have left teachers to serve a growing population of immigrant-origin students that they know little about. For educators working within the progressive traditions named above, this can be excruciating because they believe that their immigrant-origin student’s experiences are “assets” that can be incorporated into teaching and that teachers should “work to get to know their students and develop meaningful relationships with students while engaging in the students’ communities.” 

What can be done?

What can we do to better serve the immigrant and non-citizen students that we work alongside as researchers and educators today? First, we should assume that all of our public school classrooms–no matter where we teach–are mixed-status classrooms that include U.S. citizen and undocumented students that deserve our attention. This means that we should create curriculum and programming that reflects contemporary immigration stories–curriculum that identifies the strengths of immigrant communities and also critically examines the structural barriers they face in the U.S. Second, we should create resources for teaching and advising our students that highlight the different educational and professional opportunities available to young people of all immigration statuses. This will help to alleviate the unfair burden that immigrant-origin students face when they have to disclose their or their families immigration status in order to navigate the educational system. Finally, we should talk with our colleagues about this enduring challenge of serving a population of students that we protect by keeping in the shadows. We all need to gain practice in breaking our professional silence so that together we can create more culturally relevant, sustaining, and just schooling practices for our students. 

Knowing Silence: How Children Talk About Immigration Status in School is available in print and online at: manifold. Readers are invited to visit the Manifold site while reading the book because they will be able to listen to the audio files that are represented in the book’s transcripts. In this way, readers will also be able to listen to the voices of the children in the book to hear firsthand about the ways in which immigration status impacts their lives and learning. This can be one tool for breaking our professional silences and imagining new ways of teaching immigrant children in the U.S. today.

Be sure to follow us or tweet about #ImmigrantEdNext

Suggested Citation*: Mangual Figueroa, A. (2024, April). Knowing Silence: Why it’s so hard to talk about immigration and education in schools today. Immigrant Ed Next. 

*Introduction by Lisa Lopez-Escobar and Sophia Rodriguez

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

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