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  • Writer's pictureImmigrant Connections

Top 5 Strategies for Engaging Immigrant and Refugee Families for Family Engagement Professionals

Updated: Dec 17, 2020

As anyone who reads this blog knows, many of our posts are about family and community engagement in schools. We are passionate about bringing together the English Learner (EL, ESL, ELL, multilingual, immigrant, refugee, etc) field with the family engagement field. Sometimes our articles and trainings are geared towards those in the EL/immigrant space, to help them grow in the area of family and community engagement in schools.

Other times, our articles and trainings are geared towards those in the family engagement field, to help them expand their understanding and reach so that all families, including immigrant and refugee families, are engaged equitably. This is one of those articles.

Here are our top 5 strategies for those in the family engagement field who seek to improve their engagement with immigrant and refugee families.

1. Understand families’ backgrounds: It is important to understand the backgrounds and circumstances of the families you are working with. Of course, learning about families’ cultures is crucial (think cultural humility, cultural responsiveness, cultural proficiency, or choose your buzz word of the day), but this also means you need to:

  • Recognize that you are working with immigrant families – not just “EL families,” “ESOL families,” or “multilingual families.” (Note: an immigrant is simply a person who moves to another country permanently. Immigrant ≠ undocumented.) This is important because viewing families simply from a language lens (not to mention a language deficit lens) does not allow one to see families holistically. Being an immigrant means adjusting to a new country and culture through a process of acculturation, seeking a way to balance your cultural roots with your new culture, navigating new structures and systems such as our schools and social service systems, and more. For many immigrant families, it means learning how racism and discrimination operate in the U.S., having family members separated across borders (or recently reunified), enduring loss of extended family and community, and tolerating isolation and loneliness. Imagine you moved to Brazil. Would you want your whole identity to be reduced to being a “Portuguese language learner?” Or would being identified as an American immigrant feel more appropriate for all that you're navigating?

  • Understand at least a bit about the complex systems many, if not most, immigrant and refugee families are engaged with. For example, are you working with undocumented families who are regularly trying to navigate immigration court or ICE check-ins on their own? What about resettled refugee families who lost a major source of support when the local refugee resettlement agency closed due to the collapse of the U.S. refugee program over the past few years? Knowing the basics of how these systems work will help you better understand the lived experiences of many of the families your school or district is seeking to engage.

2. Language access: this means providing parents with equal access to information and opportunities, regardless of language. According to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and many other subsequent Executive Orders, memos, and laws, schools must communicate information to limited English proficient parents in a language they can understand about any program, service, or activity that is called to the attention of parents who are proficient in English. Before your eyes glaze over with the legalese, let me say: Apps that translate are not enough. If you are working as a family engagement professional in your district and there is little to no infrastructure for interpretation (oral) and translation (written) services, this should be one of your top advocacy endeavors. With a quarter of children in the U.S. having at least one immigrant parent, this is crucial for equitable engagement! In many districts, COVID-19 has really brought this issue to the forefront and it is crucial that we all work on building systems to address this massive equity concern. See our previous blog post for guidance on how to fulfill interpretation and translation requirements.

3. Remember all of your immigrant communities, not just the Latino / Hispanic community. Yes, it is Hispanic Heritage Month and yes, for most of us, our largest immigrant population is Spanish-speaking, BUT many of us have students and families from 50-100+ countries and/or language backgrounds! To my colleagues in the family engagement field: what systems are you putting in place in engage with these communities? What staffing are you considering? What unique communication and outreach strategies are you implementing?

4. Partner with your local immigrant and refugee community-based organizations as well as faith-based institutions that serve this population. This is crucial for outreach, communication, collaborating on out-of-school time programming, trust-building, and more. These are the agencies that immigrant and refugee families know and trust! These organizations often have staff from the cultural and linguistic backgrounds of those they serve. If you work in family and community engagement for your district and don’t know who these organizations are, figuring this out needs to be a top priority. You can figure this out by:

  • Asking immigrant/refugee families in your district if there are any organizations in the community that help them. Be sure to ask about faith-based institutions, such as mosques, temples, etc.

  • Check with your State Refugee Coordinator to find out if there are any refugee-serving agencies in your area.

  • Google (and/or use Facebook to find) what you’re looking for. For example, I googled “Somali community organization Columbus Ohio” and quickly found an organization called the "Somali Community Association of Ohio."

5. Create welcoming schools through policies, staff training, and high expectations. Work to combat the anti-immigrant sentiment that exists, to some degree, in nearly all communities, and therefore, all school districts. Tackle it proactively! Assume it is there and work to make all immigrant families as welcome as possible. See this video about how immigrant and refugee parents in Aurora, Colorado advocated to make sure Aurora Public Schools adopted a resolution to ensure that all schools are safe and welcoming to all students and families regardless of immigration status. Also, check out Welcoming America’s guide on Building Welcoming Schools.

If family engagement professionals keep these five strategies in mind, school and district engagement with immigrant and refugee families and communities will undoubtedly improve.

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