Our nation’s immigration policies have been the subject of a divisive national debate. Children of immigrants who have recently entered the country have found themselves in the crosshairs of this discussion. The newly founded non-profit Re-Imagining Migration has emerged, striving to address the often-overlooked needs of this growing demographic. Adam Strom, former Director of Scholarship and Innovation at the Brookline-based nonprofit Facing History and Ourselves and Carola Suarez-Orozco, a Professor of Human Development and Psychology at UCLA, co-founded the organization with the help of Suarez-Orozco’s husband, Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, who is the Dean of the School of Education and Informational Sciences at UCLA.
The organization’s primary mission is to work with young people, immigrants and educators to make them think more broadly about the issue of migration. “Immigration is one of the most pressing civic issues of our time, yet schools are not well-equipped to teach about it,” explains Suarez-Orozco. “That needs to change.”
Re-imagining Migration helps to address this educational deficit by developing workshops, curriculum, and resources for schools and teachers to better, and more creatively discuss the topic to students and help migrant children reach their full potential in their adopted surroundings.
The synergy between Strom and Suarez-Orozco is infectious as they bounce back ideas and praise off one another. The two had crossed professional paths many times over the years and eventually found that their respective professional backgrounds complemented each other. While at Facing History and Ourselves, Strom developed an admiration for her extensive research on immigrant children, referencing it regularly in his content development work. Strom possessed years of curriculum development and education consulting experience, but immigration had long fascinated him on a personal level.
“It’s my family’s story,” he said. “How on earth did they get here from Eastern Europe? What were their lives like? How did they make it out of the shtetl? What did they encounter? The folks coming to this country today have stories like my family’s.”
Suarez-Orozco, on the other hand, had spent years in academia, carefully studying the experiences of immigrant children. As much as she enjoyed her research, she wanted to do something outside of the insulated world of academia.
“I wanted to translate all of this work outside of the Ivory Tower where it would be applicable and useful for real people in everyday life,” she said. Suarez-Orozco had recognized, through her years of research, the potential impact that schools had on immigrant children. “Schools made a huge difference in how well immigrant children adapt,” she continued. “I began speaking with educators and discovered there was a real thirst to understand how they can better serve these kids.”
Today’s heated political climate and rhetoric surrounding immigration have raised the stakes for the founders,” explains Strom. “We’re in a place of xenophobia in this country. There’s always a pushback against immigrants, and that’s bad for kids. But xenophobia is not just bad for kids. It’s bad for democracy. History has proven that xenophobic moments are dangerous to democracy.”
A broader goal of Re-Imagining Migration is bridging this empathy gap. While a primary goal for the organization is to serve immigrant children better so they can become productive members of society, Re-Imagining Migration also aims to help the native-born people in any area understand the commonalities that they share with immigrants. After all, immigration history informs us that everyone had initially come from somewhere else.
“There are a billion people on the move,” Strom said. “Sometimes controversies like DACA and the travel ban take over the bigger picture story that folks are integrated and always have been. This is part of what it means to be human.”
Strom and Suarez-Orozco are acting quickly to put their ideas into practice. They are holding upcoming workshops with the Boston Public Schools as well as in Charlotte, North Carolina. They have noticed that, even in the more conservative South, they have been met with nothing short of enthusiasm.
“These educators recognize how the Southeast is changing demographically and want to be ahead of the game in serving their student’s needs,” Strom said.
Re-Imaging Migration is forming partnerships with school systems all over the world spanning from local Boston public schools to educators in Germany and the Netherlands. In addition to Facing History and Ourselves, they have partnered with The Covenant Foundation in New York to feature archived letters from newly emigrated Jews living in the Lower East Side at the turn of the century.
The organization’s Moving Stories app will soon be available. With this educational app, users can interview others about their family’s immigration story, and the app then generates commonalities to link one person’s immigration story with another. The purpose of Moving Stories is to demonstrate how similar immigration stories are to one another. Whether a family comes from Central America or Eastern Europe, Ireland or Africa, there are common factors that push people to migrate: persecution, economic opportunity, educational opportunity, or, more simply put, the search for a better life.
When asked what keeps each of them moving forward with this ambitious project, Strom recalls the memory of speaking to four young women from South America at a Massachusetts high school. “They had raw stories of their experience coming here, and they felt so vulnerable,” he said. “They had a teacher that deeply loved them and an administration that cared. Yet, they still felt invisible to their peers. I think about them a lot.”
Strom emphasizes that 4.5 million children have a parent that is an undocumented immigrant and must live day to day with the constant fear that their parent will be deported. “When you talk to many newcomers, it’s important to hear the deep, deep concerns they express,” he said. “They feel so vulnerable, so frightened.”
Approximately 25 percent of children in the United States today have at least one parent who’s an immigrant, and this percentage is expected to increase to 30 percent in the decade ahead. With immigration issues and rhetoric affecting this growing chunk of American children, the founders of Re-Imagining Migration see their work as more essential than ever. The United States is a nation of immigrants, and much of our future lies in the hands of these very children.
“Ever since then, these are the kids who inspire me,” Strom recalls his early experiences as a teacher working with migrant children in Los Angeles. “They’re the good news story about our country, and we should celebrate them.”
By Alicia Landsberg