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Lesson Plan June 17, 2021

Beyond Crisis Mode: Humanizing Youth Migration to the United States


This unit was created by Dr. Ingrid Fey, who teaches Ethnic Studies, AP Seminar, and AP Research in Los Angeles, CA, as part of the spring 2021 Pulitzer Center Teacher Fellowship program on Stories of Migration. It is designed for facilitation across approximately four 7590 minute live or virtual class periods.

For more units created by Pulitzer Center Teacher Fellows in this cohort, click here.

Unit Objectives:

Students will be able to…

  • Critically analyze media depictions of migration from Central America.
  • Explain the complex causation behind migration by youth from Central America.
  • Trace the routes traveled by youth migrants from Central America to the U.S. southern border with Mexico and describe the challenges immigrants face on their journeys.
  • Explain the impact of US policy in Central America on migration patterns to the U.S.

Unit Overview:

How does media coverage of migration shape how Americans’ views of migration by youth?  Why are so many young people trying to migrate to the United States?  What are their journeys like?  What happens when they get to the U.S.-Mexico Border?  What role does U.S.  policy play in this situation?  These are the major questions that students will explore in this 4-day mini-unit, which results in media literacy and creative assessments. 

Since 2014, the number of unaccompanied children migrating to the U.S. has continued to grow, as has the percentage of migrants who are apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border  While it remains the case that the majority of apprehensions are of single adults and families with children, the increasing number of unaccompanied minors (children under 18) arriving at the U.S,/Mexico border present unique challenges for U.S. immigration authorities because they have different rights related to the length of time they may be held in immigration authorities’ custody , and their ability to remain in the country while their asylum cases are being processed, than the rights given to adults.  The Trump administration worked to weaken these legal protections for what they termed “unaccompanied alien children” (UAC) by cutting funding for legal support and giving judges more freedom to determine whether or not an asylum applicant qualified as an unaccompanied child asylum seeker (PBS).

In the early months of the Biden administration, unaccompanied youth asylum seekers overwhelmed unprepared immigration authorities at the U.S. southern border.  Press coverage of immigration detention facilities showed hundreds of children packed into inadequate holding cells, facing wait times for processing by immigration officials that significantly exceeded legal limits.  Despite these depictions, experts on immigration patterns contended that migration at the start of the Biden administration did not constitute a “surge.”  In March 2021, researcher Tony Payan even asserted that “the...situation at the border is neither a unique crisis nor the result (yet) of Biden’s policies” (Roberston). That said, however, March 2021 had the largest monthly number of unaccompanied children ever recorded, with nearly 19,000 young migrants presenting themselves at the border (Spagat and Jaffe).

Despite the fact that overall immigration numbers are not nearly as high as historical peaks, media portrayals of unaccompanied youth migrants from Mexico and Central America often employ dehumanizing language to describe them and their potential effects on U.S. society.  This mini-unit focuses on helping students to better understand the lived experiences of youth migrants coming to the U.S.-Mexico border with the hope of establishing residency in the United States.   Through close examination of Pulitzer Center-supported reporting and other resources, students first analyze press coverage of youth migration. They then examine the causes of youth migration, the journey northward, and how youth are received at the border.  The unit culminates with students critically analyzing media accounts and/or creating a project that demonstrates their empathy for, and understanding of youth migration at all steps along the journey from their homelands to the United States border.

Skills addressed in the unit include analyzing Cause and Effect, Image Analysis (Graphs, Maps, Photographs), Critical Media Literacy, and Creative Writing.

Note:  Although the term “unaccompanied alien child” (AUC) has been used by governmental agencies, it is recommended that teachers not use this terminology because it can be dehumanizing.  In fact, the Biden administration has moved to remove the term “alien” from immigration policy manuals (Acevedo).


Background Information for Teachers:  The Importance of Empathy and Migration Stories

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