Helping Kids Understand Immigration
News of Immigrant Families Living in Fear
It seems that every time I turn on the news or scroll down my Facebook feed, there’s a new story about immigration.
A report that the Trump administration is considering separating mothers from their children when they are detained at the border. A video of a 13 year old girl crying because she saw her father taken away from her on her way to school.
Raising our children to understand, care about, and act on social justice issues is so important to me. Our 18 year old understands immigration pretty well, partly because these issues affect some of his classmates.
But how could I start with our 5 year old? How could I help him understand some of what’s happening, in a way that’s appropriate for his age?
In this post, I’m sharing ideas for helping preschool and elementary aged children understand immigration, and how it affects children like them.
Be sure to read part II of this post: How to stand up for immigrant rights with your kids
Copyright: airdone / 123RF Stock Photo
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Immigration Picture Books to Spark Conversations
One of the things I realized right away is that an abstract conversation with a 5 year old (or even a 9 year old) was not going to work. Luckily, there are many moving picture books that can introduce kids to immigration issues. After the book descriptions, I’ve included a list of questions you can use to spark a conversation with your child, plus a printable glossary of immigration terms.
Mama’s Nightingale: A Story of Immigration and Separation by Edwidge Danticat and Leslie Staub
Saya and her father desperately miss her mother, who has to live in a detention center because she doesn’t have the right papers. While they are apart, Mama begins sending Saya tape recordings of Mama telling Haitian folktales. As Saya watches her father write letters to judges and news outlets every night about Mama, she decides she wants to write her own story.
Though her father’s letters have been ignored, reporters want to interview Saya after she writes to them. As people respond to her story and send their own outpouring of letters, the judge allows Saya’s mother to come home while she waits for her papers.
I wasn’t sure what our sensitive 5 year old would think of this book. He let out a cry of shock when he found of Saya’s mother was in jail. He seemed relieved when she was able to come home. It was important to him that I tell him that his father or I couldn’t be sent to jail. I talked about how we were citizens, so that couldn’t happen. I also stressed that I thought it was very unfair that some people had to be in jail away from their families because of not having the right papers, and that we should work to change this. (Recommended for ages 5 – 10).
I’m New Here by Anne Sibley O’Brien
Maria, Jin, and Fatimah are new not only to their school, but to this country. There are many things that are hard, like when Maria tries to understand new words that sound strange to their ears. Jin knew how to read and write in Korea, but here the letters look like “scribbles and scratches.” Fatimah knew how she fit in and what to do in her old class in Somalia, but here she cannot see the patterns.
The book follows each of the three children as they slowly find their place in their new school and their new home. (Recommended for ages 3 – 7).
The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi
On her first day of school in the United States, the other children don’t know how to pronounce Unhei’s name. A few even seem to make fun of it. So Unhei decides she shouldn’t use her Korean name at school, and should pick a more American sounding one. Though Unhei’s mother tells her being different is a good thing, she still wants a new name.
Her classmates start putting names she might like in a jar for her. But when Joey becomes fascinated with how her Korean name looks, Unhei wonders if she should change her mind. (Recommended for 4 – 10).
My Diary from Here to There/Mi diario de aqui hasta alla by Amanda Irma Perez and Maya Christina Gonzalez
When Amanda overhears her parents talking about moving from Mexico to California, she’s worried. She begins pouring her fears into her diary. While her rowdy brothers are excited, she doesn’t want to leave the people and places she loves. Her friend Michi says she’s lucky because at least they will all be together, unlike her own family, which is separated by the border.
Her father leaves before them because he is a U.S. citizen and will need to get their green cards. As they go through the long wait to get their papers, Amanda continues to share everything she’s experiencing with her diary. (Recommended for ages 6 – 10).
Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale by Duncan Tonatiuh
This allegorical tale can give children an idea of how difficult, painful, and dangerous the journey across the border is when someone is being smuggled by a “coyote.” Papa Rabbit is supposed to come home to the rancho after the harvest finishes. But when he doesn’t arrive, his son Pancho packs up his favorite foods and sets out to find him.
He meets a coyote along the way, who tells him he can find a shortcut. On the perilous journey, the Coyote demands more and more of Papa’s food, until it is all gone. Finally, they arrive in El Norte (the United States), hungry and thirsty. When Coyote discovers that Pancho has no more food, he says that he will just eat Pancho instead! Just then, Papa Rabbit, Senor Ram, and Senor Rooster arrive to rescue him and chase away the Coyote. (Recommended for ages 7 -10).
Questions to Spark Discussion After Reading Immigration Picture Books
Be sure to download my Kid-Friendly Glossary of Immigration Terms (many of which are used in the picture books above.)
- What would you feel if our family was going to move to a new country, where people spoke a different language than you?
- How is your life similar to the the child in this book? How is your life different?
- If there was someone in your class who is new to this country, what could you do to help them feel welcome?
- What can you do if you hear someone else making fun of a person’s name, or of the way they talk?
- How did you feel when ____character’s name____ had to be away from their parents? Did you think that was fair?
Immigration Videos for Kids to Watch
Another way to help children understand what it’s like to be an immigrant and some of the challenges our immigration system presents is watching videos.
In this StoryCorps interview, Vito de la Cruz tells about his experience of working in the fields as a child, including an immigration raid he lived through. (Recommended for ages 8+)
In another resource from StoryCorps, Alice Mitchell interviews her little brother Ibukun Owolabi. Their mother was a Nigerian immigrant, and they talk about why it was important to her to give him a Nigerian name. (Recommended for ages 5+)
The following video is very emotional. 13 year old Fatima Avelica describes what it was like for her when her father was detained by immigration in front of her, on her way to school. (Recommended for ages 10+).
Explore Your Faith Tradition’s Teachings About Immigrants
If you are a person of faith, exploring what your faith tradition teaches about immigrants with your child can be a powerful experience.
The United Church of Christ provides a list of scriptures from both the Old and New Testament related to immigration
The advocacy organization Interfaith Worker Justice has a collection of prayers related to immigration, from a variety of faith traditions.
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has an overview of Jewish texts on immigration
Additional Resources for Kids About Immigration
Some of the terms used in the picture books and videos listed above may not be familiar to you and likely won’t be familiar to your children. Download my printable Kid-Friendly Glossary of Immigration Terms to help explain what these words mean.
Teaching Tolerance’s 10 Myths About Immigration is an incredible resource if you have a child who is in 4th grade or above. I also highly recommend it for adults to get a better grasp of immigration issues so that you can answer your child’s questions.
Coming Next Week: Part II of this blog post will cover Actions Your Family Can Take to Support the Rights of Immigrants
Is the plight of immigrants something that moves you or your children? Share your thoughts in the comments.