Blog: Immigration and Social Justice: Illegal is never the most important part of the story

By Wendy Smith

How do we talk to children about immigration? What is the right way to explain that almost all citizens of our country are descendants of immigrants, all coming to this continent in search of a better life, or in attempt to escape some kind of cruelty, but new immigrants are now rarely allowed to enter our country legally?

On a recent service learning immersion trip I took with undergraduate students from Loyola University Maryland, we learned about the harsh realities of immigration from Mexico and other parts of Latin America. Our country has built a fence, at great expense, across many miles of the border between the US and Mexico, but there are still those who will risk deportation, harassment and even their lives to cross this border, looking for a better life for themselves and their families.

Cross and water drop

As Jose Vargas, the founder of Define American, and an undocumented immigrant, says, we can better understand each other if we hear each other’s stories. So, I will tell you the story of two young people I met on my trip to Mexico and San Diego. Anna and Juan (names changed) ages 16 and 7 came by plane from Guatemala with their mother to cross into the US from Mexico. Their father had immigrated to the US, but had been unable to bring the family with him. Once at the border, Anna’s mother realized it was risky to cross the border, but Anna would not be deterred. Taking her brother, she boldly crossed from Mexico into southern California, hoping to find her father and a better life. Instead, they were quickly picked up by the border patrol, but as unaccompanied minors, they could not be immediately deported. They were taken to a foster home where they are now awaiting deportation. Anna and Juan are learning English and hope to be able to find their father and eventually be with him as well as their mother. Some would call them “illegal aliens.” Others would recognize them as two of the thousands of children whose families have been split because of unnatural borders. These are the stories we can tell our children, not the stories of “illegals” and people who want to take our jobs, but the stories of families who are looking for a better life or are running from persecution, just as my great-grandparents did, or perhaps your grandparents or parents.

Share the story of Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan with your intermediate reader or Four Feet Two Sandals by Karen Lynn Williams or One Green Apple by Eve Bunting with your primary children to give them some stories of immigrants both in the US and in other places. Illegal is almost never the most important part of the story.


Wendy M. Smith, PhD, joined the PSC Board in 2012. Wendy is currently the chair of the Teacher Education Department within the School of Education at Loyola University Maryland. She teaches classes in literacy education for elementary education majors and graduate students in the Reading Specialist Degree Program. She has been a Peace Corps Volunteer, an executive director of a non-profit advocating for people with cognitive disabilities, an elementary special education teacher and a certified Lamaze instructor. Wendy’s area of expertise is children’s literature and she has written numerous papers on the use of books that contain characters that are marginalized by society; these include books with children who have cognitive and other disabilities, children who are abused, children who live in war zones and African American children. Her favorite books about peace are A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle and The Watsons go to Birmingham, 1964 by Christopher Paul Curtis.


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