Volume 39 Issue 5

Understanding the Plight of Immigrant and Refugee Students

By Melissa Ruiz, Brenda Kabler, & Melissa Sugarman

Refugee and immigrant children constitute one of the fastest growing groups in the United States, with numbers increasing to an estimated 9 million children by the end of 2010 (Fix and Passel, 1994). The Upper Darby School District, located in the southeast corner of Pennsylvania, has witnessed the rapid growth of a diverse immigrant and refugee population during the last 15 years. As a result of this wave of immigration, there is a recognized change in our schools, with one tenth of our student population arriving in our buildings from 75 countries around the world. Seventy-four languages are spoken, including Punjabi, Vietnamese, Albanian, and Urdu. The district has responded to this wave of immigration and increase of refugee students by applying to the Federal Grant Office and receiving Refugee Children’s School Impact Aid (RSCIA). The goals of this grant were (a) to help refugee students progress toward meeting rigorous academic standards, (b) promote appropriate behavior in the school setting, and (c) to increase the ability of parents to support their children’s learning experiences. This has been a successful effort to create a supportive learning and community environment for our diverse students and their families. As school psychologists we feel that the diversity of our students is our greatest strength, and their needs, our greatest challenge. It is our responsibility to educate ourselves to ensure that these students’ needs are being addressed so that we can minimize the barriers to learning while maximizing their potential to achieve. The purpose of this article is to provide core information about immigrant and refugee students for school psychologists and educators working with this population.

Immigration to the United States

More than any other country in the modern world, the United States is a nation of immigrants. The students that we educate include both immigrants and refugees. Laws exist that make it easier for certain groups to become permanent residents of this country.

Who is an immigrant? A foreign born individual who has been admitted to reside in the United States can also be called a legal permanent resident (LPR). Legal permanent residents are given green cards in one of three ways: (a) family sponsored immigration, which includes some of the children that we see; (b) employment-based immigration, which includes families that live and work in our communities; and (c) the U.S. Annual Diversity Visa Lottery Program, which is open to citizens from designated countries throughout the world who want to reside in the United States.

Legal permanent residents can apply for citizenship through a process called naturalization. To qualify for naturalization, a person must reside in the United States for 5 years (3 years if married to a U.S. citizen) without having committed a serious crime.

Who is a refugee (or asylee)? The United States and many other countries in the world also admit people seeking protection on the grounds that they have a wellfounded fear of persecution based on race, religion, membership in a social group, political opinion, or national origin. A refugee applies for this status outside of the United States and an asylee applies while in the United States. If accepted as a refugee, the person is sent to the United States and receives assistance through the refugee resettlement program (Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians, 2004).

Special immigration status for juveniles. Special immigration status can be afforded to some minor immigrants under Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, enacted under section 203(B)(4) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. Under this legislation, immigrant visas can be issued to juveniles who are eligible for long-term foster care because they have been abused, neglected, or abandoned and for whom reunification with their birth family is not possible (U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, 2004).

Who is an undocumented immigrant? An undocumented immigrant is a person who is present in the United States without permission from the government. Some of these immigrants enter without any inspection at a border and some enter legitimately but overstay their visas. Children may enter the United States with undocumented family members.

Arrival of Immigrants and Refugees

Many immigrant families arrive in the United States after years of planning for the move and face many changes and challenges along the way. This period of preparation can be stressful, as these families often take the time to familiarize themselves with the English language, secure jobs, and locate future housing. They may have extended families and local support in an ethnic community in the area to which they are moving (Strekalova & Hoot, 2008).

In contrast, many refugee families have fled from persecution, arriving in the United States from refugee camps where they wait, sometimes for years, to be sent to a safe nation. There are 12 million refugees, or asylum seekers, worldwide according to the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (2006). Unlike some immigrants, refugees are often fleeing from oppression, having experienced untold horrors such as rape, abduction, and trafficking, and arriving in the United States with few belongings in order save their lives (Strekalova and Hoot, 2008). Sometimes children arrive alone, having lost their parents due to illness or murder. In such cases, these children may have had to become the head of the household, taking care of younger siblings (McBrien, 2005).

Refugee students are often included under the title of “immigrant students,” but they suffer from the effects of significant trauma that makes them more vulnerable than the children of voluntary immigrant families (McBrien, 2006). Many researchers emphasize the negative impacts of traumatic experiences on the social and psychological development of refugee children (Coleridge, 2001; Ghazali, 2004; Parkins, 2004).

Children of refugee and voluntary immigrant families share the challenges of adapting to a new culture and learning a new language. Children fleeing from home countries have diverse traumatic experiences, which can have an impact on their successful adjustment. Refugee students suffer from the trauma of the pre-, trans-, and post-migration periods in their lives (Frater-Mathieson, 2004). Loss of home, country, common language, safety, family, and possessions continues as these children adapt to their new country (Strekalova & Hoot, 2008).

Laws and Regulations Protecting Immigrant and Refugee Students

As school psychologists, it is critical that we identify the needs of children and their families in order to help them to access needed educational services. The following federal laws, regulations, and case law protect immigrant and refugee students by guaranteeing assistance for economic self-sufficiency, English-language acquisition, improvement of language instruction programs in schools, and the prohibition of discrimination.

  • The Refugee Act: formally defined the word refugee and developed the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which assists refugees in obtaining economic and social self-sufficiency in the United States

  • Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Title III: guarantees English language acquisition and enhancement by improving language instruction programs

  • Title III, Subpart 3, Section 3131: awards grants for educational agencies to provide professional development that will improve classroom instruction for students with limited English proficiency and to assist personnel to meet high professional standards

  • Lau v. Nichols: a Supreme Court decision in 1974 ruled that providing non-English- speaking students with textbooks, teachers, and a curriculum does not constitute an equal opportunity for education

  • Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title VI: prohibits discrimination on the grounds of race, color, or national origin in programs or activities that receive Federal financial assistance

Food Stamps. On October 1, 2003, all qualified immigrants and children became eligible to receive food stamps. The U.S. Welfare Office should provide a free interpreter to anyone who needs one in order to obtain these entitlements.

Legal Status Defines Benefit Opportunities

Legal status in the United States has a strong effect on a family’s ability to access benefit opportunities as well as their likelihood of coming to the attention of child welfare personnel. Current immigration policies emphasize self-sufficiency as barring even legal immigrants from obtaining welfare benefits, food stamps, disability payments, and publicly funded health insurance during their first 5 years in this country (Pine & Drachman, 2005). Those afforded refugee status can receive these benefits, while those who are undocumented cannot, with the exception of education and emergency health care (Greenberg & Rahmanou, 2004). As a result, children of immigrants are twice as likely to be in fair to poor health as those of parents born in the United States (Capps, Passel, Periz-Lopez, & Fix, 2003). The greatest risk factors for immigrant children or the children of immigrant parents are parents with low education attainment, low family income, and lack of English proficiency. Being a member of a single parent family also predicts poor health among these students (Hernandez, 2004).

Environmental Barriers to Learning and Succeeding

Several variables in the student’s environment can serve as barriers to success. Family involvement has often been cited as a predictor of student success. Cultural differences impact how a family views their role and the extent of their involvement in their child’s educational process. According to the Children of Immigrants Longitudinal Study, parental support and interest in their child’s schooling positively impacts refugee and immigrant students (Portes & Rumbaut, 2001).

A family’s level of acculturation and assimilation could also impact students’ functioning. Parents may struggle with beliefs that are incompatible with the mainstream culture, difficulties with a new language, and a lack of understanding of the new culture. Portes and Rumbaut (2001) used the term dissonant acculturation to describe what occurs when parents and their children differ in their acquisition of culture and language.

Eisenbruch (1988) found that bereavement of any type, whether personal or cultural, can impact a refugee child’s adjustment to the new environment. Based on Erikson’s theories, Eisenbruch stated that “uprooting” could significantly impact the child’s self-concept. For example, adolescents may struggle with balancing loyalty to family with the American belief of individualism. Schools can be vehicles of acculturation and assimilation, which can minimize environmental obstacles and enhance a sense of competence.

Within-Student Barriers

Each student comes to school with characteristics that are as unique as the countries from which they came. One barrier that immigrant and refugee students often encounter is language. Lack of English proficiency has been cited as the most important hindrance to a student’s adaptation to a new environment (Davies, 2008). Research reveals that these children are often competent at speaking everyday conversational English, but lag behind in academic English (Allen, 2002). According to Cummins (1981), there are two types of language proficiencies, basic interpersonal communicative skills (BICS) and cognitive/academic language proficiency (CALP). BICS refers to everyday communication skills such as pronunciation, basic vocabulary, and grammar. Immigrant and refugee students typically acquire this skill quickly and as a result “teachers prematurely assume that minority children have attained sufficient English proficiency to exit to an English-only program” (p. 27). Differing from the contextual process of BICS, CALP is more of a cognitive process, which does not rely on meaningful interpersonal context. Whereas BICS can be acquired in 2–3 years, it can take 5–7 years to acquire CALP (Cummins, 1981).

Another obstacle to education for the immigrant and refugee students is their level of prior education. Some students arrive at our schools to receive formal schooling for the first time, while the education of others was interrupted by their move to the United States.

Trauma has also been cited as possibly hindering a student’s ability to learn (Sinclair, 2001). In reports of psychosocial trauma in young children, Sinclair (2001) concluded that early educational responses help restore a sense of normalcy and hope in refugee children, which can foster emotional and social well-being. In a study done by Davies (2008) on the adaptation of Sierra Leone refugees in New York City Public Schools, students identified the school as the most significant influence on their adaptation. They were able to gain self-confidence, resilience, and the ability to overcome previous trauma they experienced as a result of the caring, sharing, trusting community created by the school. Sinclair (2001) stated that education should be considered as essential to these children’s well-being as food, shelter, and water.

Lessons Learned

In the Davies (2008) study it was concluded that an environment based on trust, tolerance, and respect for the school community created optimal conditions for effective teaching and learning. More specifically, schools accomplished this by emphasizing:

  • Positive teacher dispositions

  • A range of teaching styles that met the needs of individual students (e.g., individualized teaching, collaborative learning activities, and peer mentoring)

  • A language-rich environment where language is taught across the curriculum

  • A curriculum that relates to students’ lives

  • An after-school tutoring program run by teachers, volunteers, and student mentors

  • Strong school–parent partnership

  • Access to counseling, including trauma counseling, to facilitate student adjustment

  • Opportunities to collaboratively solve personal problems with peers and teachers

  • Opportunities to participate in creative out-of-school programs (Adapted from Davies 2007, p. 371)

Refugee and immigrant students present unique challenges to the education process. School psychologists can help train and inform other professionals in our schools about these students and how to meet their diverse needs. Being responsive to these needs can help to foster a caring environment, and create a sense of community.


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Melissa Ruiz, Brenda Kabler, NCSP, and Melissa Sugarman, NCSP, are members of the NASP Multicultural Affairs Committee, Children and Transition Subcommittee.