• Immigrant Connections

Dear School Districts: "Immigrant" is Not a Bad Word


There are a number of school districts throughout the United States that call immigrant students “international” students. For example, a quick search pulls up a number of districts in Georgia, Maryland, Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina, and more.


This really bothers me. Why?


First, it’s confusing. The term “international student” is typically utilized in higher education to mean someone who chooses to study in another country and moves to that country for the purpose of studying. The University of California Berkeley’s definition is helpful:


International students are defined as "non-immigrant" visitors who come to the United States temporarily to take classes. A non-immigrant is someone who:

  • Intends to stay in the U.S. temporarily

  • Does not have U.S. citizenship or legal permanent resident status (a "green card")

  • Applies for a visa to be allowed entry into the U.S.

And yet, the majority of foreign-born students and families in U.S. schools are not here temporarily and are not here just to study. Most are here to work, reunify with family members, escape war or violence, to have a better quality of life, and so on. The correct term for those who have moved to the U.S. to permanently live is “immigrant” (and in some cases “refugee”).


So, we’re talking about the difference between temporarily moving somewhere to study (international student) versus moving somewhere permanently to live (immigrant). Some may think this is just a semantics issue, but I do not. With all of national conversation around immigration and what it means to be an American, I think it is crucial that we educators properly identify who we are talking about.


This leads me to my second reason I dislike the term "international student" in K-12 education. From working in and with school districts that utilize the terms “international student” and “international families,” I often get the sense these districts utilize these terms because they seem “safe” and not “political.” For some individuals, somehow the term “immigrant” seems to mean “undocumented immigrant,” which is not a correct assumption.


“Immigrant” is not a bad word. Our country was founded by immigrants! We need to embrace immigrant students and families in schools and acknowledge them for who they are, why they are here, and the beautiful cultural and linguistic diversity they bring to our schools and communities. Public schools need to chime in to the national conversation about immigrant children and families and stop trying to be apolitical. A good start is by properly recognizing the foreign-born students and families you are serving as “immigrants” and acknowledging all the contributions they make to your schools and community.


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