Leaning into a Contentious and Deeply Personal Immigration Debate

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

Immigration was central to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign from the first day he announced his candidacy in June 2015. His harsh rhetoric directed towards undocumented immigrants and refugees from war-torn countries motivated his base and contributed to his improbable victory. Trump’s early executive actions as President are popular with his core supporters as he delivers on campaign promises.

However, these actions horrify his opponents and threaten the very existence of many Americans, including Illinois residents and students in our classrooms. Stories abound of families living in fear, refusing to send their children to school, and once vibrant communities increasingly shuttered. Young children in Chicago and elsewhere are living in legal limbo, and even the Southern Illinois community of West Frankfort is torn over the recent arrest of a popular restaurant owner on immigration charges.

Anti Trump immigration protest in Baltimore DSC 6867 (32445440142)

As civics teachers, we are compelled to discuss these current and controversial issues in our classrooms. But we must do so with an abundance of caution.

I learned this the hard way more than a decade ago, teaching a United States History class to a racially mixed classroom, roughly half-white, half-Latino. The course was designed thematically and began with a compelling question: “What is an American?” This naturally lent itself to historical and contemporary explorations of immigration, and I attempted a Socratic seminar on the latter.

While the students’ shared a common text, their position relative to amnesty for undocumented immigrants that have long called the United States home was largely tied to their race/ ethnicity. I was naïve to the fact that this debate so early in the semester caused great harm to the classroom environment as the political statements of many of my white students were legitimately seen as direct threats to the personhood of my Latino students.

The tension in the air was palpable in the weeks that followed as I desperately employed all of the pedagogical tools in my teaching belt to undo the damage. Cooperative learning techniques helped, but I regret to admit that complete reconciliation was elusive.

I still hold true to the belief that I was right to bring immigration into my racially heterogeneous classroom. It was pertinent then as it was now: President Bush campaigned on comprehensive immigration reform and was arguably stymied because of the 9-11 attacks.

But as teachers we must account for classroom context, and on this measure I failed. The Socratic seminar was sloppy in construction and the issue discussion itself premature as classroom chemistry, and by association a safe environment, was still in the making.

On this issue we should’ve hewed more closely to the text, allowing the opinions expressed in the article to represent issue positions. I could have also been more sensitive at the outset to how personal this issue was too many of my students, making this clear to everyone in the classroom.

During these tumultuous times, students are looking to their teachers to make sense of shifting political debates and the human impact of related policies. We must lean into immigration and a plethora of other contentious issues, but do so with great care for our students and their very identities.

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