The bi-partisan support we have seen in many communities across the United States for Afghan refugees is heartening. After years of divisive rhetoric against refugees that has led to dehumanizing policy decisions, prejudice, and hate, this newfound encouragement gives us hope. Early signals from across the aisle suggest Afghans will be met with a sincere welcome. We can be proud to see how businesses, NGOs, faith groups, and other actors are coming together to help. At the same time, it isn’t unfair to ask how long the welcome will last. How will our peers and neighbors receive Afghan children once the current news cycle moves on?
Too often, the vital role that schools play in acculturating newcomers and creating communities of belonging is left out of the conversation. More than any other institution, schools are the sites that facilitate the day-to-day integration of the next generation of immigrant-origin students and their peers. Children of Afghan refugees will join the 27% of students in our K12 schools who have an immigrant parent. We succeed when they succeed.
Our history suggests that if given the opportunity, immigrant and refugee youth grow up to make extraordinary contributions to the United States. Today, about half of all Fortune 500 companies in the US were founded by immigrants or children of immigrants. More than a third of U.S. Nobel Prize winners in the sciences are immigrants. It’s hard to imagine the art, literature, music, and food of the United States without immigrants. Even kids who go to school alongside immigrants do better academically.
These indicators don’t capture the real-time challenges that children of immigrants face. Research from Carola and Marcelo Suárez-Orozco reveals that they arrive in schools eager to learn English, build relationships, and thrive in their communities. However, once they arrive, their teachers often don’t understand them, and few have been trained to work with them. Those that have are usually educators who are trained to address their narrow English learning needs without engaging them as full people. In most schools, newcomers are viewed as kids who have language needs instead of being considered in more complex, holistic ways. While having undergone trauma(s) and in need of initial guides as they find their way in their new land, they are also resilient and determined with supportive families who embody grit.
In addition, xenophobia in schools, from peers and staff, takes a toll. Because 85% of immigrant origin students are perceived as kids of color, they are often targets of both racism and anti-immigrant hostility. A 2019 study led by John Rogers at UCLA found that 68% percent of predominantly white schools report anti-immigrant bigotry. Sadly, there is often very little done about it. In fact, Rogers found that less than half of US schools communicate about the need for tolerance and respect of immigrants.
Research shows that children of immigrants who experience discrimination in school are more likely to disengage. Therefore, it shouldn’t be surprising that the Migration Policy Institute reports that only 66% of English Learners graduate high school. That means that 1.6 million young people will lose out on an average of a million dollars in earnings over their lifetimes. And beyond lost wages, dropouts live less healthy lives, in turn weakening the communities in which they live.
One approach to counter bias centers on modeling ways to communicate and build relationships across differences. However, fewer than half of our schools actively work to bring kids with different backgrounds together and over 60% of educators in schools with diverse populations haven’t had professional training that focuses on ways to create civil and respectful learning environments. In the absence of positive steps to promote integration, many schools have become toxic places for both educators and their immigrant and refugee students.
If we are going welcome Afghan refugees effectively, here are six points that need consideration:
- We need a national audit of the school climate for immigrant-origin students to better understand what is, and is not, working in the way that schools are serving newcomers.
- The audit results should be made publicly available for all educators to highlight this important dynamic.
- We need to stop simply looking at refugee and immigrant students as kids who don’t know English. The narrow focus on language misses both the incredible resilience immigrant kids bring with them as well as the social-emotional, cultural, structural, and legal barriers they may be facing as they navigate their new land.
- All school staff need professional development focused on serving immigrant students. Immigrant students are our students, not just the responsibility of one or two faculty in a building.
- We need to teach about migration in the educational curriculum. Migration is the through-line of the human experience, yet the way it is taught is frequently mired in myths and misconceptions that get in the way of helping students understand current events.
- We must find ways to bridge the gap between newcomers, their peers, and the members of communities in which they are settling. One way to do that is our Moving Stories project. Students, faculty, and community members interview each other about their migration stories in this generation or the past.
Ignoring the dual roles of schools as sites of acculturation for newly arrived students and spaces that can bridge and bind young people together will impact all of us in the long run. The United States’ economic and social future requires all of us to be able to work and live with people whose identities, accents, experiences, cultures, and ideas are different from our own. While it’s great to see the warm welcome many communities are offering to refugees, ultimately, it is the follow-through that matters most. Schools, more than any other institution, are the places where kids are enculturated into society. If we do not ensure that they are places where refugee and immigrant students can thrive alongside their American-born peers, the loss of economic and social capital will have profoundly negative long-term consequences for the country.