News stories about the debate over the DREAM act, the tens of thousands of children who arrive unaccompanied in the U.S. each year and even the backlash against immigrants in Europe after the Charlie Hedbo killings can raise all kinds of questions and stir up all kinds of emotions for kids. This is especially true when they involve children being separated from their parents.
We talked with William Perez, Professor of Education at Claremont Graduate University and author of Americans By Heart: Undocumented Latino Students and the Promise of Higher Education, for his tips on starting good conversations with kids about immigration.
Elementary age kids won’t grasp the more abstract issues surrounding immigration, Perez says. So conversations with them can begin with the fact that almost everyone living in the U.S. today comes from a family of immigrants – including theirs. “A good start would be discussing their family’s history of migration to the U.S.,” he says. “Why did they first come? What were the conditions in the country of origin?” From there, the discussion can widen “to conversations about contemporary migration, and the reasons families decide to live in a new country.”
Middle school kids can wrestle with more complex issues, says Perez, so parents can encourage them to broaden their horizons, by “reading narratives from families of different backgrounds about their immigration experiences.” And all the stories don’t have to come from the pages of a book. Middle school is also a great time, says Perez, for students to start “asking friends, classmates, or extended family members about their migration experiences.” How did their friends’ families come to this country? What was the experience of their grandmother, grandfather, aunts and uncles?
High school students “should begin to understand how immigration policies affect immigrants and their families,” says Perez. Families can discuss questions like why do some states have pro-immigrant laws while others have anti-immigrant laws? Perez also suggests that high school students read news stories about immigration from different sources, regions, and countries. Parents can encourage them to absorb what they read by asking questions like “Do these sources talk about immigration in different ways? If so, how? And why?” (One place to start might be this story in New York about an immigrant family who works fast food jobs in Texas.)
The bottom line, according to Perez: make sure that kids understand that immigration didn’t stop at Ellis Island. “Teaching about the history of immigration is important,” he says. But it’s also very important to help kids connect that history and current policies to their families and community.