September 2017
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Lori Dodson, Anne Marie Foerster Luu, & Shelley Wong

Lori Dodson
Gaithersburg, Maryland, USA

Anne Marie Foerster Luu
Silver Spring, Maryland, USA

Shelley Wong
George Mason University
Fairfax, Virginia, USA

When anti-immigrant rhetoric and fears of “outsiders who are here to take advantage of our riches” infiltrate our communities, lawmakers can make devastating nativist laws criminalizing the lives of our students and their families. Even though these laws target undocumented immigrants, they are making all immigrants and those who look like them socially, economically, and politically marginalized in the communities they call home. Public and political discourse that led to the passage of these laws raises fears resulting in a climate that, to some, justifies a strong backlash against those who are our students. While these laws were taken through the courts, the damage was already done (Duara, 2016). The “othering” and criminalizing of immigrants remains in discussions. Decisions such as the “Muslim bans,” the call to build a wall on the Texas/Mexico border, and the shift of immigration judges from New York City to the southern border in what some call a “crackdown on illegal aliens” keep the issue of immigration in the popular media at a cost. The language used and the intentions behind this type of rhetoric have our students and their families living in fear.

We have DREAMers (a youth movement made up of undocumented students who after graduating from high school want to go to college and live legally in the United States) in our classrooms. As we write this article, congressional leaders are summoning the courage to stand strong against those challenging Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a 2012 executive order that protected DREAMers. Currently, DACA allows young people who submit complex paperwork, pass a criminal background check, and pay a significant fee to legally work in the United States. They must renew this work authorization every 2 years.

To protect DREAMers and other young people protected by DACA, the Bar Removal of Individuals who Dream and Grow our Economy (BRIDGE) Act was introduced in the Senate on 9 December 2016 and in the House on 12 January 2017, with bipartisan support for the DACA program. The DREAM Act is legislation that has been attempted before and was defeated in 2011. It would provide undocumented youth who arrived in the United States prior to age 16 access to higher education, work authorization, and conditional permanent residency, which could eventually lead to citizenship. On 20 July 2017 it was reintroduced in the U.S. Senate in a bipartisan effort to stop the discontinuance of DACA; such a discontinuance would have catastrophic results for the nearly 80,000 DACA recipients, who would no longer have the right to work and would be subject to deportation. The students at risk are those who trusted in the process of giving their personal information that exposed their status to the government on the promise of deferred deportation. Another effort, The American Hope Act, was introduced on 28 July 2017 by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the House Democrats to offer a pathway to citizenship for DREAMers currently in the DACA program. If all goes well, the law may change the legal status of our undocumented students, but it will take time and education to change the hearts and minds of the broader community.

Persistent anti-immigrant rhetoric, anti-immigrant laws, and the criminalization of immigrants happens at the peril of the jurisdictions involved as our immigrant population, documented and undocumented, is a strong economic force. The state of Alabama passed HB56 in 2011, making it clear that undocumented immigrants were not welcome in the state and threatening criminal action toward anyone who contracted with undocumented immigrants. However, targeting 2.5% of the state’s population, not all of whom were undocumented immigrants, proved to be an economic disaster. That 2.5% of tax-paying consumers were being pushed away. In the United States, undocumented immigrants alone generate US$13.7 billion tax dollars (Walter, 2017). Alabama also learned that they put foreign investment at risk. Investment plans by Spain and China of approximately US$180 million were threatened. Mercedes Benz and Honda questioned their investment of US$4.8 billion in auto industry payroll alone (Baxter, 2012). Money from taxes and investments ultimately funds our public schools.

In addition to the economic pressures of anti-immigrant policy, Alabama HB56 also criminalized school registrars who failed to request immigration papers despite this being determined unconstitutional by the Supreme Court (Peterson Beadle, 2013). HB56 was only nullified after the state of Alabama was sued and sustained huge economic losses in foreign investment, agriculture, and legal fees. There seems to be little remorse for the impact on the human beings marginalized by misinformation and ill-conceived legislation (Southern Poverty Law Center, 2012).

Even with the example of Alabama, Texas passed and signed into law SB4 on 7 May 2017. However, on 30 August 2017 this law was temporarily blocked by a federal judge who stated that “SB4 will erode public trust and make many communities and neighborhoods less safe. There is also ample evidence that localities will suffer adverse economic consequences which, in turn, harm the State of Texas” (City of El Cenizo et al v. State of Texas et al, 2017). If this decision is reversed, campus police would be expected to enforce immigration laws under penalty of removal from service and fines of up to US$25,000. They would also be expected to ask the immigration status of crime victims. Anti-immigrant actions such as this law leave our undocumented students and neighbors vulnerable to the most nefarious elements of our communities.

Our students enter the classroom with the burdens imposed by often unwelcoming and hostile rhetoric and policies. Some are being kept out of school by families fearful of their safety from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers, uninformed educators, and classroom bullies (Steenland & Kelley, 2012). The sense of security is scarce outside the home, but school is supposed to be safe for all students. Nonetheless, a refugee from Honduras attending high school in North Carolina was grabbed up by ICE on his way to school. The school board, his teachers, classmates, and family all worked together to make sure he continued his studies in detention while they fought for his release (Morse, 2016). Though his story ends well, with his release from custody, it is not the only story that makes the evening news.

A story that did not end well occurred in Rockville, Maryland, a long considered progressive bastion welcoming immigrants from 170 different cultures. This incident took place at a local high school, releasing heretofore unspoken fears. Two high school students in the asylum process were accused of a heinous crime that was later dismissed by the courts. It became a news story that blasted the students as illegal immigrants, too old to be enrolled in school. These students, one of whom was under the age of 18, were “convicted” on the evening news with their personal information used to make a point about issues of immigration. One student was also identified with a photograph. Was this really an issue of immigration status? Some people questioned if they were possible gang members simply because of their country of origin.

In the United States, we have seen the assumption of guilt based on country of origin before. In an interview about the Rockville case, Superintendent Matsuda of California’s Anaheim Union High School District said, “The sort of scapegoating that went against an entire ethnic group [the Japanese-Americans during WWII], there’s some of that going on right now. We really need to reflect on the role of public schools in a democracy, in very tumultuous times.” (Mitchell, 2017)

TESOL members and all teachers need to stay informed, take action, and make it personal. To stay informed, we can move beyond mainstream media and follow immigrant community organizations like United We Dream. We can frequently check in on the status of federal and state legislation and consider the probable impact on our students and families. Taking action could be as simple as adding issues of immigration to our curricular resources or organizing information sessions. Even having a cup of tea with a neighbor could spread the word about what is really happening to the humans beneath the rhetoric. When we make it personal, we open our eyes to the dilemmas posed by the realities of our students. Supporting them will require us to understand them for who they are and the challenges they face. This may require teachers to look beyond their own cultural perspectives to find solutions that will make a difference in the lives of our students.


Baxter, T. (2012, February 15). Alabama's immigration disaster. Retrieved from

City of El Cenizo et al v. State of Texas et al., Civil No. SA-17-CV-404-OLG (U.S. District Court Western District of Texas, 2017, August 30). Retrieved from

Duara, N. (2016, September 15). Arizona's once-feared immigration law, SB 1070, loses most of its power in settlement. The LA Times. Retrieved from

Mitchell, C. (2017, March 24). High school rape case becomes flashpoint in immigration debate. Education Week. Retrieved from

Morse, J. (2016, July 6). How one immigration detention shook a city. Pacific Standard. Retrieved from

Peterson Beadle, A. (2013, October 30). Alabama's HB 56 anti-immigrant law takes final gasps. Retrieved from

Southern Poverty Law Center. (2012, January 31). Alabama's shame: HB 56 and the war on immigrants. Retrieved from

Steenland , S., & Kelley, A. M. (2012, March 15). The damage of anti-immigrant laws and rhetoric. Retrieved from

Walter, E. (2017, March 03). Undocumented immigrants are making a huge impact as taxpayers. Retrieved from

Lori Dodson is an elementary ESOL teacher in Maryland.

Anne Marie Foerster Luu is a high school ESOL teacher in Maryland.

Shelley Wong is a member of the Mason DREAMers advisory board at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

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SRIS Survey Results
The SRIS Survey identified the following strands:
  • Gender & ELT
  • Social Justice in Teacher Education
  • Peacebuilding & ELT
  • LGBTQ+ & ELT
  • Global Education
  • Environmental Responsibility
  • Immigrant Rights & Access to Education
  • Racial, Linguistic & Cultural Discrimination
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How do you incorporate social justice into your classes with English learners or teachers in training? Share your practical ideas on creating lessons that center social issues and raise students’ awareness. Submissions due 1 November.