Loosening the Threads of Anti-Immigrant Bias

by | January 22, 2024

Recently, former President Trump has been telling enthusiastic crowds that immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country.” These hateful words, which echo the pseudo-scientific hysteria of the Eugenics movement, spread insidiously, amplified by a primed partisan press. Trump’s xenophobic declarations are just one example of how immigrants and the children of immigrants – as well as their peers – are surrounded by messages telling them they don’t belong. 

At a time in which responses to migration are fueling polarization among the most diverse generation in our nation’s history, shouldn’t our students be prepared to identify the line between multiple perspectives, myths, manipulation, and misinformation? Stereotypes and biases are like invisible threads woven into the fabric of our society, subtly influencing our perceptions and behaviors, weakening core pillars of our approach to education. Educators can, and must, untangle them for the good of our classrooms and communities.

When young people don’t feel like they belong, it deeply damages their academic and social lives. In 2016, the presidential campaign’s anti-immigrant messaging led to increased bullying and fear among students. Claims that immigrants are “taking jobs,” “won’t fit in,” or are “criminals” are widely held despite significant evidence to the contrary. Immigrant youth often internalize stereotypes, yet, few K12 classrooms examine the origins and impact, and even fewer explore the historical patterns of anti-immigrant prejudice in the nation. This is a lost opportunity. Understanding the genesis of these stereotypes is the first step in dispelling them. 

Recent scholarship suggests increasing racial and ethnic diversity is leading to cultural anxiety and that responses to migration are driving polarization. Despite its civic salience, teaching about immigration is frequently squeezed into a single unit in a social studies class. In lieu of instruction, young people are left to their own devices to make sense of the endless cycles of anti-immigrant rhetoric that animates hate. At a time when migration is fundamental to economic growth, our future depends upon the ability of schools to equip the rising generation with four key capabilities: knowledge to recognize truth from fiction, ability to distinguish stereotypes and bias’ from reality, empathy to recognize the impact of hate on their peers and our communities and the ability to challenge the narratives that skew civic discourse about migration.

Our history and literature are replete with stories about immigrants and responses to immigration that illuminate some of our most pernicious prejudices and civic debates. Benjamin Franklin’s letters reveal his unfounded concern that German immigrants would never integrate. In the middle of the 19th century, the Know-Nothings reshaped American politics with a combination of nativism and anti-Irish bigotry. In the 1870s, stereotypes about immigrants taking American jobs exploded into vicious anti-Chinese hatred and violence when labor leaders, many of whom were Irish immigrants themselves, sought to drive Chinese immigrants out of their adopted communities. That prejudice took the form of policy when it was codified through the Chinese Exclusion Act. And in the early 1920s, lobbyists used the language of eugenics to sway Congress in favor of the 1924 Immigration and Naturalization Act, institutionalizing anti-immigrant stereotypes in federal law.

These are just some of the ways anti-immigrant stereotyping erodes social trust, fuels discrimination, and shapes public policy. More intimately, generalizations about immigrants affect the self-esteem and identity of immigrant-origin children. At the same time, when students who are not immigrants, harbor stereotypes, it negatively impacts their ability to work with classmates from diverse backgrounds and limits their perspectives and opportunities for personal growth. 

So, what can educators do? 

First, educators must reflect on their own attitudes about migration and immigrant students, and ask themselves: What shapes the way I think about immigrants both in the past and in the present? What do I know about immigration and migration as compared to what do I think I know? What assumptions do I make about students who speak accented English?

Second, instead of relying on misinformation, we need to consider what we know about our students, their families, and the impact of migration on their lives, including immigrant and non-immigrant students. It is essential to create a safe space for open conversations where students are encouraged to question and analyze the origins and consequences of stereotypes.

Third, working in increasingly diverse communities, we need to be intentional about creating instructional activities that build relationships between students across cultures. The research is clear that these experiences have a profound and lasting impact on how people think and act. 

Fourth, we need to ensure our curriculum exposes students to stories that provide a more accurate reflection of immigrants through the history and literature we teach. Schools should proactively feature guest speakers from immigrant communities to share their experiences and express their needs so they can be successful in an academic learning community.

Educating young people to thrive in increasingly diverse schools requires reimagining how we build a shared sense of belonging among youth. By incorporating these strategies into schools, we can guide students to recognize biases, understand the multifaceted immigrant experience, and develop dispositions essential for navigating the world around them.

Filed Under: Featured . Politics

About the Author

Adam Strom is the Director of Re-Imagining Migration, an organization whose mission is to decrease bias and hatred against young people of diverse origins, and help rising generations develop the understanding and habits of heart and mind that are necessary to build and sustain welcoming and inclusive communities. Before helping to found Re-Imagining Migration, Strom was a long-time member of the senior leadership team at Facing History and Ourselves.

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