Talking to Kids about US Immigration

Guest Blogger: Melodie Hagner-Salava

As a Mom of an 11 Year old daughter, I frequently find myself in discussions with her about topics that appear on the news. Since the Immigration Crisis and Obama’s Executive Action had flooded the screens, I am sure I am not the only parent has fielded questions from their child about these issues. Unlike some parents, I am lucky enough to have more knowledge on the subject than most. However, it is still nice to able to have other resources to aid me in my discussions. I also want to make sure I am explaining things on her age and grade level.

During one of my Google searches, I came across an article that was published in the January issue of Time magazine on the subject of talking to children about immigration. The article recommended guidance for three different age groups, Elementary, Middle and High Schools, from William Perez, Professor of Education at Claremont Graduate University and author of the book “Americans By Heart: Undocumented Latino Students and the Promise of Higher Education.” Perez feels one of the most important ideas for all kids to understand that immigration didn’t stop at Ellis Island and it continues every day in our country.

Since my daughter will be attending Middle School next year, I paid close attention to his advice for Middle Schoolers. He recommended the kids read “narratives from families of different backgrounds about their immigration experiences.” Perez also mentioned that parents should urge this age group to ask their friends, classmates, or extended family members about their immigration experiences. Most kids know some information about their own family’s stories of immigration to the United States but it is beneficial for them to learn about other’s histories. In our racially diverse culture, it is relatively easy to find friends or classmates who have a more recent chronicle of immigration to the US. His or her family may have come to the US on a visa and have become Lawful Permanent Residents or naturalized citizens. I know several of my daughter’s classmates were not born in the US but moved here when they were very young. In the past, they have shared their experiences with their fellow students.

For Elementary School students, the discussion of immigration would be much harder. Often teachers, especially in the 3 and 4 grades, will teach units on early immigration to the US. Another way for this age group to learn about immigration is to listen to stories about different ethnic groups coming to Ellis Island. There are also some non-fictional books that are age-appropriate for elementary aged kids to read. My daughter enjoyed reading the American Girl book series of Rebecca. Her family emigrated from Russia to New York. Boys may enjoy the novel entitled “The Orphan of Ellis Island.” The story focuses on a 10 year old named Dominick who travels back in time to Italy in 1908 and accompanies two young immigrants to America. Perez suggests the parents and grandparents talk to kids about their own family history of coming to the US.

Given that High School kids have a better understanding of US and World History, it is easier for parents to discuss how our government’s “immigration policies affect immigrants and their families.” Perez recommends that High School students browse news stories about immigration from various sources, regions, and countries. Parents can urge them to grasp what they are reading by asking questions and having weekly discussions. It is a great way for both the teens and the parents to learn more about what they are hearing on the daily news.

In my Google search for advice on trying to find age appropriate information on immigration, I also came across some great websites for parents to use to guide their elementary through middle schoolers. On the PBS Kids website, there is a section called “It’s My Life”. They have an entire page dedicated to the topic of immigration. The website has several articles on the topic, a fact or fiction sheet, a word search puzzle as well as a page that asks kids “should they stay or go?” This page has the children “put themselves in the shoes of five kids who have to make a choice: stay in their home countries or risk starting over someplace new.” To visit the website, click on the following, another kid friendly web page for elementary school kids is from Scholastic Books. It is entitled “Immigration-Stories of Yesterday and Today.” The website contains sections such as “Meet Young Immigrants,” “Immigration Data” and “Explore Ellis Island.” These are educational but fun for Elementary School kids to learn more about immigration. Here is the link for the Scholastic page,

Whether you or a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, etc., it is important for all of us to help educate children on immigration. It is our hope in doing so; their generation will help change the way Immigration Policies are created in the future. Our younger generation needs to understand the meaning behind the Emma Lazarus sonnet, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” I am sure many of our kids do not know why this sonnet appears on a plaque is on the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal. Lazarus was inspired to write this sonnet by her own Jewish heritage and her experiences working with refugees on Ward’s Island. In 1883, she composed the sonnet for the “Art Loan Fund Exhibition in Aid of the Bartholdi Pedestal Fund for the Statue of Liberty.” Her words should still be significant to all Americans today as they were 132 years ago. I know anyone who visits Ellis Island gains a better understanding about our country’s history of immigration. For this reason, I am planning to take my daughter to New York this Spring to visit the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. I remember visiting it as a pre-teen and being very emotionally moved. Hopefully it has the same effect on my daughter and anyone else who visits.


“How to Talk to Your Kids About Immigration,” by Carey Wallace, Time Magazine, January 13, 2015,

American Girl Doll Book Series for Rebecca,
The Orphan of Ellis Island,

“Emma Lazarus”, National Park Service,

Post contributed by Guest Blogger: Melodie Hagner-Salava

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