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Breaking the Silence: Facing Undocumented Issues in Teacher Education

Sun, April 19, 2:15 to 3:45pm, Marriott, Floor: Sixth Level, Lincolnshire


The Supreme Court ruling Plyler vs Doe (1981) has opened up access to public K-12 education for undocumented immigrant youth for more than thirty years, yet issues of undocumented status continue to be silenced in schools as teachers and administrators cannot or are afraid to bring up the issue, despite its effects on students’ learning and trajectories. Currently, undocumented youth’s educational outcomes lag far behind their documented and U.S.-born peers: 40% of undocumented youth (ages 18 to 24) have not completed high school, as compared with documented immigrants (15%) or U.S.-born residents (8%) (Passell & Cohn, 2009). Furthermore, because schools and teacher education institutions typically render immigrant youth generically as “English learners” rather than discussing variations in immigration status, documentation issues continue to remain invisible through the official channels that prepare teachers to work with youth. This paper addresses the need to interrupt status-quo silences by initiating conversations about undocumented status while also addressing tensions associated with the topic.

Theoretically, this paper is situated in acknowledging the historical formation of migrant “illegality” that is sustained as the product of laws and categories that are created, rather than naturally occurring (De Genova, 2002). As with other socially consequential categories (race, class, gender, sexuality, [dis]ability, etc.), the cost of silence is the continued invisibility of phenomena that nevertheless exert a clear impact on people who inhabit those categories. Conceptually, we recognize that educational sites matter for how undocumented youth come to experience illegality, and that additional work is needed to change the status quo.

This paper sheds light on how teachers served undocumented youth by deliberately interrupting status-quo silences on documentation status in school settings. Results are based on ethnographic data from two U.S.-based qualitative studies: the first, a four-year multi-sited ethnography (Burawoy, 2000; Marcus, 1995, 1998) of the daily lives of undocumented youth as they navigated school, work and family. The second data source is from a year-long ethnographic study of four high school teachers. Teachers were selected over an eight-month period involving multiple nominations for outstanding teachers of immigrant youth. Data include multiple teacher interviews (28 hours total), classroom observations (87 hours total), and student interviews (50 hours) in order to develop case studies (Yin, 2009).

Results from these studies illustrate the various ways that teachers navigated teaching in settings with undocumented youth. In this paper we: (a) articulate the need for addressing undocumented status, (b) present ethnographic examples of teachers who navigated these issues drawing from our two qualitative studies, (c) synthesize understandings related to teaching undocumented youth, (d) highlight emerging areas of focus based on our research, and (e) outline continuing tensions. Through this work, our aim is to raise visibility and begin conversations about the place of undocumented status in teachers’ practice. By examining teachers’ situated practice with immigrant undocumented youth and making this knowledge explicit, we also contribute to building a base for teachers to better understand, conceptualize, and imagine alternative responses to status-quo silences.


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