Six people in a classroom holding posters that read "Immigrant Students" with monarch butterflies.

Featured, Roddenberry Fellowship

Undocumented Students and Families in Our Schools Deserve to Be Supported, Protected and Uplifted

Undocumented students and families in our schools deserve to be supported, protected and uplifted
Vanessa Luna | September 6, 2019


It’s back to school season and I can’t help but think about my time in the classroom as a former 6th-grade DACAmented teacher in Los Angeles and NYC. I clearly remember the innate desperation I felt when one of my student’s parents was detained by Immigration Customs Enforcement and within months I watched as my student and her family left my classroom and their community. Or when one of my 12-year-old students shared with me that he was having nightmares from the results of his friend’s father being deported and growing enforcement in his neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley. Or when after the 2016 election, one of my 7th-grade students from Brooklyn confided in me that her family was planning for the worst as both of her parents were undocumented but she and her sisters were citizens, she was terrified of being separated from her family. 


Growing up undocumented, I had somewhat experienced this sense of uncertainty and fear before- from cringing everytime my dad drove his car by a police officer on the way to dropping me off to school to the incredibly challenging time I had accessing college opportunities as an undocumented high school student. This experience was my motivation for becoming a teacher. But as a teacher, I did not have the tools to support the undocumented students and families had the honor to serve. I would spend hours reading and researching guides, resources, and local organizations in an attempt to bring some of those tools into my classroom. When times of crisis occurred, I along with my school staff were reactive to the needs of my students and families rather than proactive allies and supporters. 


Enforcement and attacks on immigrants have been rampant for many years and schools and educators have felt the impact of immigration policy within their classrooms. At ImmSchools, we believe that schools can be a critical institution to support our immigrant community. There are currently 3.9 million students who are undocumented or have parents who are undocumented in our schools.  Even though the K-12 system is one of the only public institutions that protect undocumented immigrants under Plyler v. Doe, less than 1% of the school districts have concrete practices and policies in place to support this community. Immigration has often not been included in conversation around educational opportunity and access, further contributing to inequities and injustices experienced by our immigrant families. 


ImmSchools is the first organization addressing the unjust immigration system with a focus solely on our schools. We are an immigrant-led nonprofit that partners with schools through a three-pronged approach. We foster the resilience of undocumented students and families through community-centered workshops, strengthen the leadership capacity of educators through professional development and implement immigrant-friendly policies across schools and school districts. 


Through this intersectional and community-driven model that is driven by current or former undocumented immigrants, we will achieve systemic and enduring change in our education system and in our society. As an immigrant-led organization, we are working towards an educational experience that our parents sacrificed everything for. We experienced this issue first hand and must be at the forefront of the solution. 


I can only imagine what my journey both as an undocumented student and teacher would have been like if these supports have been in place. Now more than ever, we must all take action to ensure that our immigrant students and families are supported, protected and uplifted. 


About the Author

Vanessa Luna is the Co-Founder and Chief Program Officer of ImmSchools. She immigrated to the United States at the age of 10 from Lima, Peru.  ImmSchools is an immigrant-led nonprofit organization that partners with K-12 school districts and educators to support the unique needs of the undocumented and immigrant community in order for them to reach their fullest potential. Vanessa and the ImmSchools team are working to make the education system an effective source of communicating, educating and engaging the undocumented and immigrant community.

Learn more about Vanessa and ImmSchools here: https://www.immschools.org/