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Bilingual and bicultural migrant students bring assets, not deficits, to their educations

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By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

A webinar series on education of children who grow up on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border has created a unique resource for teachers, social workers and policy makers looking to learn more about this unique youth cohort.


UCLA International Institute, July 28, 2023 — Since roughly 2007, more Mexican migrants have been returning to Mexico from the U.S. than leaving their country to work here. These migrants frequently return home with children born and educated for several years in U.S. schools who have no experience with the Mexican school system.

“You have children who have no prior exposure to academic Spanish and whose emotional and psychological health has suffered because of disruptions associated with not being rooted, leaving family members behind or, sometimes, leaving their circle of friends and familiar environment from one day to the next,” said Rubén Hernández-León, director of the Latin American Institute (LAI) and a professor of sociology at UCLA.

“This reality caught Mexican authorities, educators and administrators by surprise in the latter part of the 2000s, when these students started to show up in significant numbers,” he continued.

It is not uncommon for transnational migrant children to complete more than one cycle of back-and-forth between the two countries, explained Hernández-León. In fact, many migrant parents explicitly seek to build the language and cultural skills of their children, making sure they spend significant time in both countries, with dual nationals often returning to the U.S. for high school and higher education.

Yet these students and their unique attributes remain mostly invisible at the school level in both the U.S. and Mexico. The LAI 2022–23 webinar series, “Migrant Children Negotiating Educational Systems,” sought to specifically explore the educational needs and experiences of transnational migrant children from Mexico and Central America in U.S. and Mexican schools.

“Part of the inspiration for the series is to sensitize students and teachers in Southern California, because some of these students are in their classrooms right now,” said Hernández-León of the webinars, which he organized together with LAI Outreach Coordinator Verónica Zavala, a UCLA doctoral student in cinema and media studies.

Said Zavala, “The teachers that attend workshops want to learn about the background and histories of their students of Latin American descent, and this series provided an important context for the complexity of migration.

“My own educational trajectory further inspired me to program this series on migration,” she continued. “I was part of the migrant educational program in California, constantly shifting between the two countries’ educational systems.”

Featuring established and young scholars from the U.S. and Mexico — among them, Ted Hamman of the University of Nebraska, Victor Zúñiga of the Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León, Maxie Gluckman of the International Research and Exhanges Board and Silvia Rodriguez Vega of UC Santa Barbara — the series explored the educational challenges faced by transnational students and their parents, even delving into teaching and learning tools to help young learners unlock and communicate past trauma and distill informal learning.

In the U.S., noted many speakers, transnational students are typically viewed through an “immigrant” or “English-language learner” lens and assumed to have learning “deficits” rather than the “assets” of bilingualism and biculturalism. U.S. teacher training programs, moreover, rarely address the learning and psychosocial needs of immigrant children.

“Including the voices of children and their families in this series was a priority, a goal that we accomplished,” explained Zavala. “We had a mix of speakers from both sides of the border who used interdisciplinary methods and lenses to capture the complexity of the experiences.

“One of the consistent themes across the talks was the influence of labeling children and families and the repercussions that these labels have on the education and life experiences of students. This is where teachers can have a huge impact,” she said.

“You can think of teachers as sort of first responders,” commented Hernández-León. “At the school level, they tend to be much more committed to getting migrant kids integrated and involved. But then they hit up against immigration policy problems that affect those same children. Often they are not necessarily trained to help with those problems, but they still try because they feel it’s their job.”

In Mexico — which has traditionally sent young adults to the U.S. and has limited experience welcoming their bilingual young children back into the national school system, much less migrant children from Central America — registration requirements can be too bureaucratic (e.g., copies of student transcripts can require the seal of the relevant secretary of state in the U.S.) or too detailed for parents to meet, particularly if they return to Mexico quickly due to an emergency. Children who are fluent in English, moreover, frequently fly under the radar of their Mexican teachers and principals.

“As parents, activists and scholars have pressed the issue of addressing the educational, social, psychological and emotional needs of these children in Mexico,” said Hernández-León, “there’s been a slow but certain response to making schools more open and welcoming, and to lower the bureaucratic hurdles for these children to enter. “

The videos from the webinar series videos (see below) provide a resource grounded in the latest research on the education of transnational migrant children and the urgent need to develop their unique skills for the benefit of both countries.

“To the extent that our two educational systems are not really talking to each other or exchanging information about these realities, it’s like driving in the dark without your headlights,” reflected Hernández-León.

“If we can devise these very complex trade agreements, with all sorts of rules and mechanisms to address grievances and solve conflicts, why can’t we do it with education?” he asked. “Our economies are more integrated with every year that passes. These students are precisely the sort of the human capital who will power these two highly integrated economies in the future.”

Download a resource guide to the webinar videos