Putting a Human Face on the Immigration Debate

A unit on immigration with Spanish-language students

By Steven Picht-Trujillo, Paola Ledezma

Illustrator: Michael Duffy

Illustration: Michael Duffy

While politicians debate immigration policy, many of our high schools in Southern California and across the country are places where immigration issues are not just academic, abstract discussions but rather the real-life drama that many of our students face on a daily basis. For those of us working with immigrant populations, we have in our students living examples that we can use to bring the immigration issue to the forefront and teach all of our students, both immigrants and descendants of immigrants, so that they can have a better understanding of the issue as it relates to their fellow students and their community. This past school year at our high school we joined forces to teach a unit on immigration to our students, using our students’ own immigration experiences to form a curriculum that we will be able to use in future classes.

We teach at Valencia High School, in Placentia, Calif., on the northern edge of Orange County. Traditionally considered a conservative “white” enclave of Southern California, Placentia is undergoing major demographic changes. Valencia High School, the oldest of Placentia’s three high schools, was established 70 years ago and now serves a student population of over 2,500. English language learners constitute 22 percent of the student body, and just over half the school’s students are Latino. However, Valencia is diverse, with 31 percent of the students officially categorized as “white” (non-Hispanic, including a variety of immigrant Europeans such as Germans, Romanians, and Albanians, as well as Lebanese, Indians, Pakistanis, and others); 12 percent Asian (Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Filipino students predominate); and 3 percent black (African American as well as African and Caribbean immigrants). Our school’s population reflects the huge demographic shift that has occurred throughout Orange County over the past 20 years; the result is that our county is now decidedly less “white” than the stereotypical image depicted in television programs such as “The OC” and “Laguna Beach.”

To be admitted to a university in the California State University system, a student must have two years of study in a language other than English; and to enter the University of California system, a student must have at least three years of study. Therefore, we have a large percentage of students studying Spanish, followed by French and Japanese.

Steve teaches first- and third-year Spanish to students from various ethnic backgrounds, while Paola, a native of Mexico, teaches second- and third-year classes in Spanish for native speakers. The vast majority of her students are first- or second-generation immigrants from Mexico, some of whom arrived only recently. As teachers in the same department, we always look for ways to have our students interact, as this cross-class engagement has language and cultural benefits for both groups.

The 2006 U.S. House of Representatives bill that declared all undocumented immigrants to be felons and imposing draconian penalties on those knowingly assisting such immigrants triggered an intense debate in the school. Since a number of our school’s students participated in last year’s May Day marches in Orange County and Los Angeles in support of immigrants’ rights, we decided that this year we wanted to engage students in several joint lessons to increase their understanding of these issues. We especially wanted to make them more aware of the circumstances facing many of our students whose families have recently immigrated from Latin America.

To align our lessons with the California Standards for Foreign Language Instruction, Steve chose to begin our “Immigration Unit,” as we called it, during the chapter in his class’s Spanish 3 textbooks entitled “La riqueza cultural” (“Cultural Richness”), which teaches vocabulary and grammar within the context of the immigrant experience and our students’ cultural heritage. Students learn how to express topics dealing with the challenges associated with arrival in a new country, talking about future plans and goals, discussing their accomplishments and successes, and expressing intention and purpose. This chapter comes late in our second semester and coincided perfectly with the one-year anniversary of the May 1st marches. Likewise, “La Experiencia Migrante” (“The Migrant Experience”), a unit in Paola’s textbook, includes poems and short stories depicting the lives and struggles of immigrants’ families coming to the United States. Some of Paola’s students live with the constant worry of either being deported or having their parents deported.

Against this backdrop, we began to put together lessons and activities to have our students become more aware of the realities of immigrants and their contributions to American society, and to promote greater appreciation of the commonalities we share in our pursuit of the American dream. All activities, projects, readings, and films that we used during this unit aligned with both the language and culture standards. Since this was our first year to teach this unit, we often created as we went along, but the end result laid the groundwork for what we feel will be an outstanding unit next year.

To begin this unit, we brought our classes together to have our students read excerpts from Francisco Jiménez’s book Cajas de cartón, an account of the author’s experiences as an immigrant child in California during the 1940s. We chose this text in order to draw parallels between undocumented immigrants of that period with those of today. The first time our classes met together we read sections aloud in Spanish in small groups, with Paola’s students helping Steve’s with their pronunciation and comprehension. It was also a chance for our students to get to know each other and to feel comfortable with one another.

Another activity that our two classes shared was the bilingual skits prepared by the students. We combined our classes to form groups of four to five students, with at least two native speakers in each group. Students wrote and prepared short skits that they later presented to the combined classes. Each group randomly drew from a list of situations and prepared their skits in Spanish (or English if it fit the situation). We came up with the topics based on real-life events that were being reported in the news.

The topics included: 1) a family in Mexico discusses the pros and cons of immigrating to the United States; 2) politicians on both sides of the spectrum debate immigrant issues; 3) an encounter between Minutemen and immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border; 4) a family in California receives a deportation order and decides whether the U.S.-born children will stay or leave; 5) a raid at a California business that employs undocumented workers.

All of these situations were either derived from news articles that we had read or were gleaned from our own experiences living in Orange County, home to an estimated 185,000 undocumented immigrants.

Each group of students randomly chose one of the five topics that were written on slips of paper. Immediately some groups responded positively to their selected topics while others expressed disappointment and wanted to change to a different topic. We had each group keep their selected topic and challenged everyone to make the effort of putting themselves in the shoes of others and to act accordingly, even if it meant taking a role completely opposite from their own closely held beliefs. As they started to work in their groups, many of the students from both classes seemed uneasy and tried to make light of their topics, jokingly taking extreme positions with each other in order to gauge the attitudes of the other students in their groups. However, as their work progressed it became obvious to us that they were putting their efforts into developing their roles and working to create cogent arguments either for or against immigrants’ rights. An additional challenge for many of Steve’s students was to prepare a role in Spanish that would convey the emotional intensity that came so easily for Paola’s students. After working together for nearly a full class period, the students seemed ready to begin presenting, so we planned to start the skits in the next day’s class, reserving the entire hour for the presentations and discussion.

As we anticipated, many of these topics struck a nerve with Paola’s immigrant students, and some of the presentations became very emotional. We noticed how some of Paola’s students were especially animated as they took on the role of the perpetrator instead of the victim in their situations (e.g., the immigration officer or the manager who refuses to pay fair salaries to undocumented workers). Still, we also saw mixed feelings of frustration and kindness from my students, who had difficulty arguing anti-immigrant positions in front of their peers. One of Steve’s students had taken an adversarial role in her skit as a politician arguing against immigrants and stopped several times in order to address the class directly, saying, “I don’t really feel this way, I’m just playing a role.” During the presentation of the skits there seemed to be a feeling of mutual respect and understanding, and we had no discipline or behavior problems.

During this unit Steve wanted to engage his students in a project that would not only put their language skills to use but that would give them cause to reflect on their own immigrant heritage, regardless of whether they or their own parents were immigrants or their family had been in the United States for centuries. To reach this aim he decided on posters in which they would include graphic representations of their heritage (photos, maps, flags, drawings, cultural artifacts, etc.) along with an original written piece. The written portion could be in the form of a personal letter, a diary entry, a newspaper article, or a short essay written in the first person as if the student were their immigrant ancestor, a parent, or themselves. The only stipulation was that they incorporate vocabulary from our textbook and show command of the grammatical structures that they employed in their writing.

In Steve’s case, his maternal ancestors were not actually immigrants to the United States; rather, the United States came to them after the Mexican-American War and subjugated them under the oft-violated terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Therefore, while we used the term inmigrante during this unit, he explained to his students that we were using the word as an all-encompassing term to include anyone who wasn’t indigenous to the United States, regardless of the circumstances under which their ancestors arrived here. Steve had no Native American or African American students in his class during this unit, but that would bring a whole other voice to the discussion that he hopes we can develop in next year’s class.

For Steve’s students whose ancestors may have come to the United States 100 or more years ago, the project required that they use their creative powers to make educated assumptions about the circumstances surrounding their chosen ancestor’s reasons for coming to the United States, based on what they might have learned in their U.S. or world history classes, or perhaps from parents or family members. Often, these students had to make up the ancestor, but doing so helped them understand why that ancestor would have made the sacrifices of leaving his or her native land to come to a new country. Most of Paola’s students are from recently immigrated families so their documents often related to a parent or grandparent.

After creating their posters, students presented them to the class, after which they were put up on the walls in both of our classrooms. One of our aims was for Paola’s students to see Steve’s in a different light and to understand that most of them too were descended from people who came to this country in search of the same opportunities. While we didn’t formally assess their responses this time around, we were happy to see her students actively engaged in poring over the posters, and we will definitely include more discussion to gauge their responses in our next unit. Some of the written documents on the posters were written as letters from the immigrant ancestor (or parent, as many of them were) to a loved one left behind. Many of these were touching accounts of the challenges the person faced in a new land, and sometimes expressed regret for having left parents or loved ones behind. Other documents were written as diary entries, expressing the pain of discrimination and marginalization in what was supposed to be a land of liberty for all. The posters’ vibrancy and creativity made Steve’s classroom into a virtual art gallery for the last month of school and students were eager to see each other’s posters and read their accounts.

All of Paola’s students wrote a personal narrative in Spanish about their family’s circumstances of coming to the United States, including reasons for leaving their homeland, challenges they faced after arrival, and hopes for the future. When she assigned the personal narratives she had her students use fictional names so that only she would know who wrote which narrative. She also had them change the names of the characters involved in their stories to avoid any accidental divulging of the authorship of any given piece. These narratives were especially poignant, as they talked about the hardships involved in crossing through the desert or being smuggled by ruthless coyotes or living with the fear of being deported or having their families torn apart.

When Paola assigned the personal narratives to her students, some were hesitant but excited to be able to tell others their story. On the other hand, about a third of her class, mostly recent immigrant students, had a difficult time writing about events that were still fresh wounds in their hearts. We realized then that many of the personal stories had no happy endings. Paola had to encourage her students, especially the ones having trouble writing or who did not want to tell their story, to use writing as a tool that would allow them to heal their inner scars. The students were given the option to undertake an alternative assignment more generically related to immigration if they did not want to pen their personal experiences, and indeed there was one student who in the beginning refused to put his experience on paper. But after seeing his fellow classmates focused on writing their accounts he told Paola, “Ms. Ledezma, my family has suffered a lot and I have to tell their story so others will know how they suffered.”

As Paola had hoped, students were able to complete and share their personal narratives in class because of the encouragement to write. To groups of five or six students, she randomly handed out essays to read aloud and then discuss, but the authors’ identities were not divulged.

These narratives are valuable documents and will be useful for our unit next year when we have our students read them in the target language and realize that these amazing stories are from their classmates’ lives. These, more than anything, put a human face on the immigration issue and in the future we hope will help students understand that regardless of whether a person immigrates to this country with documents or without, the motivation is the same: to secure the best opportunities for us and our families.

During our frequent lunch conversations, we often discussed the immigration situation, especially as it relates to undocumented immigrants. Steve sometimes had to deal with his own students’ negative and derisive comments about Mexican immigrants, while Paola was comfortable discussing immigration issues openly with her students, with whom she could easily relate. It was during those conversations that we realized that we needed to create a unit to empower both of our classes to become agents of change. For Paola’s students, by putting themselves in the shoes of others, they gained a better understanding of those who fight against undocumented immigrants and they learned to discuss and defend their own positions in the immigration debate in both English and Spanish. For Steve’s students, they came away with a deeper understanding of the issues and how they relate to their fellow classmates. As one student commented, “I never really thought about these things before, but now I realize that when they talk about immigrants in the news, they’re talking about my friends and classmates.”

The Brazilian education theorist and activist Paulo Freire once said that, “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.” With this unit we tried to get our students to understand the position of the powerless in the immigration debate. On the one hand, Steve’s students are siding with the powerful since they remained relatively uninformed on the immigration debate even though many of them are from families who have immigrated to the United States legally and enjoy a certain level of economic success. Since many of them live without the constant fear of losing everything and being deported, many had never given this issue a second thought until we discussed it in class.

By not using their voice and being heard, Paola’s students were likewise siding with the powerful. This unit was an opportunity for them to raise their voices and to begin their first steps toward empowerment. Most of them immigrated to this country without documents or were born in the United States to undocumented parents. Prior to this unit, the national debate surrounding immigration was becoming more intense, so Paola brought in articles from the Spanish-language press about various proposals for immigration reform, and her students were eager to talk about the issue. Her classroom became what she liked to call a “sanctuary city” as she sought to create a loving and welcoming environment where her students would feel safe talking about their experiences. For her as a Mexican immigrant and having been undocumented herself for over five years, she could relate to their fears and frustrations.

One of our fears in doing this unit was the anticipation of combining our classes. We had previously brought students together in an earlier unit to create plays depicting Aztec legends, so they were already somewhat familiar with each other, but not in the context of dealing with a controversial topic such as this. For this unit, Paola confided to Steve that she worried about how our students would respond, especially because more than half her students are English-language learners and had said how hard it was for them to speak English with Steve’s students. His students too had reservations. They felt like the native Spanish speakers made fun of them for their poor Spanish skills. Also, we were apprehensive about our students’ parents: How would they react? Would they complain about the unit and our politicizing of the subject matter, insisting that we just stick to the curriculum? We prepared for the worst by always having the unit’s objectives and the standards ready to justify our work.

Moreover, we had to challenge ourselves to present multiple sides of the arguments and not appear to force our personal agenda on students. Paola, once undocumented herself, was concerned that her personal situation might prevent students from expressing opposing points of view. She had shared her personal story with her students and had told them about her support for the legalization of millions of immigrants in the United States. Through our personal and professional experiences working with immigrant students, as well as the personal relationships we have with undocumented friends and relatives outside of the classroom, we are both passionate about the immigration issue and we feared that a class discussion about such a heated topic could result in chaos and/or disciplinary problems. Thankfully, our fears never materialized and the experience turned out to be overwhelmingly positive. Contrary to our fears, discussions never got out of hand, nor did we have to deal with irate parents. The curriculum provided students ample opportunity to put themselves in someone else’s shoes.

Putting a human face on immigration issues has been one of our most challenging tasks, and at the same time has been one of the most rewarding experiences that we have had in our relatively short teaching careers. As teachers who strive to be agents of change, there came a moment when we realized that we could not just dispassionately talk about the issue, but rather we needed to act upon it by bringing it into our classrooms. By doing so we hope we have planted the seeds so that our students can begin to effect change in their communities and work to change attitudes of those around them. As language teachers we don’t always have opportunities to raise students’ social awareness or to address global social justice issues, so for us this unit was the opportunity we were waiting for. We hope that it is just the beginning.



During this unit we had our students read a book excerpt dealing with immigration issues from the 1940s along with a contemporary article about the experience of a Mexican family in San Diego. These readings were the initial activity for this unit and were used in order to give students a feel for how these issues have not changed substantially in the United States since the early 20th century.

Cajas de cartón: relatos de la vida peregrina de un niño campesino, by Francisco Jiménez, Chapter 1: “Bajo la alambrada.” This book is the author’s account of his family’s illegal entry into the United States from Mexico during the 1940s. (Available in English: The Circuit, by Francisco Jiménez, Chapter 1: “Under the Wire.”)

“Column One: A family’s painful split decision.” Los Angeles Times article from April 27, 2007, by Anna Gorman, tells the story of parents who were deported to Tijuana, leaving their three U.S.-born children in San Diego so that the children might have greater opportunities in life.


During this unit we watched three films relating to immigrants from Latin America, in which our students were able to meet a handful of immigrants and learn their stories.

El Norte, by Gregory Nava. (In Spanish, English, and Mayan languages with English subtitles) This film tells the story of a Guatemalan brother and sister who flee their country’s civil war during the 1980s and shows the harrowing events crossing the U.S.-Mexican border as they immigrate to Los Angeles. Edited version for classroom use available from Teacher’s Discovery, www.teachersdiscovery.com.

Immigration. This is an episode of Morgan Spurlock’s FX Network series “30 Days” that deals with an undocumented immigrant family in Los Angeles and the anti-immigrant Minuteman who lives with them for 30 days. The program sparked a number of lively in-class debates and discussions. (In both English and Spanish with English subtitles) Available from iTunes.

Farmingville. This is a PBS “P.O.V.” documentary by Carlos Sandoval and Catherine Tambini dealing with the impact of undocumented immigrants on a suburban New York community and the community’s sometimes-violent reaction to their presence. Available from www.amazon.com. This documentary is primarily in English with some Spanish (English subtitles).

Steven Picht-Trujillo and Paola Ledezma are Spanish teachers at Valencia High School in Placentia, Calif.