Teaching about immigration can be tough because students come to our classrooms with the battle lines already drawn and believing their minds are already made up. We know, for example, that “the border” occupies a large conceptual space in our collective minds and that certain racialized populations suffer from perceptions of illegality. I have successfully re-centered my classroom conversation in a more constructive direction by starting with something most students seem to have a complete lack of information about: how the U.S. immigration system actually works.
Below I share some resources and ideas for leading an hour long discussion on “everything you wanted to know about the immigration system but were afraid to ask.” The activity below would be a great fit for any course where you are going to spend several class days on migration in the United States: Global Sociology, Social Problems, Migration, Race & Ethnicity, or Crime & Deviance. This activity is intended to take advantage of the fact that a classroom is a special place designated for learning, where everyone (including the instructor) can always learn something new without feeling embarrassed of our ignorance.
- White board and marker
- Projector/internet/resources to look at a website in class
- Links to resources on immigration you want to show (suggested below)
- You’ll probably want a printed copy of the immigration preferences and especially yearly numerical limits handy for your own reference (you may also want a few extra copies to pass around)
- You may want to assign students to read this short description of the immigration system in advance
- Paper and pen for taking notes
- Internet enabled devices for collective research
- Ask students what questions they have about the immigration system. Write the questions on the white board as students say them out loud.
- When you have a good number of questions on the board, including some basic ones, start with the most basic questions and begin answering them. Do this based on your own knowledge and, when helpful or necessary, show the students the immigration preference system and yearly numerical limits. Other resources for answering the questions can be found at the American Immigration Council Immigration 101 and, of course, the Department of Homeland Security. The fact that the DHS website is a bit complex and it may be hard to find the answer to many of the students’ questions is OK; that will be educational and make the larger point about the immigration system.
- Ask if anyone has ever traveled to another country. Ask the student(s) who answers where it was, what happened when they entered that country, whether they needed a passport, etc. Prompt the group to think about what would happen in the converse situation if a person from that country came into the United States. Would the same kind of situation occur? (It is important at some point in this conversation to encourage students to get at the fact that the U.S. has more power internationally than anyone else; we can go almost anywhere without applying for a visa in advance but the opposite is not true. This fact is invisible to most of us.)
- If there are other questions that seem essential to you, prompt the students to ask them or ask the students yourself to see if anyone knows the answer. It is essential to this exercise that your class understands that for the vast majority of migrants to the United States, there is not only no “legal path to citizenship,” there is no legal path to entry. I have found by having these discussions that most of my students did not understand the difference between citizenship and visas.
As you are standing in front of the room fielding questions, be sure to remember to acknowledge that some folks in the room may have more knowledge of the system (e.g., international or immigrant students), but do not make anyone feel as if they need to speak about their experiences or act as though they are experts. I think it is enough to say that of course some of us may have experienced this first hand. Some migrant or international faculty may talk about their own experiences while others may want to avoid that. It is my own belief that those of us who are white and U.S. born should take on the task of teaching these lessons so that others are not put in the awkward position of fielding these potentially hostile or awkward questions on their own.
One way to vary this activity would be to assign the questions to different groups in the class and have each group research the answers on the Department of Homeland Security website. A possible pitfall of this is that many of the answers can be a little detailed, confusing, and interrelated, so the instructor would need to keep an eye on making sure there is plenty of time for debriefing and not too much time spent in the groups.
It is also a great idea to spend a little time either at the beginning or end of this class period simply learning about the experiences of undocumented migrants in the United States. This can be done through a video like this one or assigning a reading; if done in advance, a video or reading could be a great way to get the questions for this activity started with some curiosity toward learning more about what we don’t understand about immigration status.
Visual example of the Latinx experience from SocImages
Contexts “in brief” on the additional stresses experienced by undocumented parents
Dr. Meghan Krausch studies race, gender, disability, and other forms of marginalization throughout the Americas and in particular how grassroots communities have developed ways to resist their own marginalization. Read more of Meg’s writing at The Rebel Professor or get in touch directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.