Undocumented Immigrants: Invisible in Our Community, Invisible in our Curriculum

This flowchart makes the information very clear: there is no "legal path" for anyone except the very privileged.
by Ann Abbott

Florencia Henshaw invited me to speak to her students in SPAN 308 "Spanish in the US," and I was delighted to do so. I think we need even more of an emphasis on Spanish in the US and that students need to understand better the complex realities of Spanish and Spanish speakers in the US.

The topic of the week was "El español en la vida pública." I don't know exactly how she was planning to frame that topic, but I decided to talk about our public discourse towards undocumented Spanish-speaking immigrants and our public policies related to them and their lives.

I'll share my notes and resources below in a list format. I only had twenty minutes to talk, and I didn't take the time to structure this as a lesson like I normally would. But maybe something here will strike you and you could develop an actual lesson plan. If you do, I'd love to hear about it!

Pathways to citizenship

I passed out copies of the image at the top of the post, gave students a few minutes to look it over, and then I put them into pairs to share two things: their personal reactions to the information and any information in the flow chart that was new to them.

Ideally, that would be followed up with similar information, but in Spanish. Click here to go to the companion website for my textbook Comunidades. Then click on "Videos" on the left. Then scroll down to the section titled "10-2 ¿Cómo se consigue una visa?" Use those videos to reinforce the concepts of the image at the top of this post and to learn the vocabulary in Spanish.


For many people, talking about undocumented immigrants is taboo. Politically incorrect. Uncomfortable. Instead, I say that if we have at least 12 million undocumented immigrants in this country, not talking about them is wrong!


For most students, the Spanish-speaking community in Champaign-Urbana is invisible. They live in different areas of town (many live in trailer parks rather far from campus). Many work in service jobs, out of sight: in the kitchens of the restaurants where you eat; cleaning the hotel rooms your family stays in during Moms week when the room is empty; on the factory floors, providing the invisible hand of labor that produces the goods you buy in stores and online; etc.

They are here. The Refugee Center reported that in the past twelve months they served 2,300 unduplicated individuals. Most of them are Latinos. Many are undocumented. Many more live here yet never go to the Refugee Center for help. 

Sometimes they decide to be "invisible." In January, ICE announced that it would step up raids. There is fear among immigrants, and they don't want to be too visible.

Undocumented immigrants are mostly invisible in our Spanish curriculum, too. Oh, the scars I still have from faculty members who didn't like the fact that community service learning focused on undocumented immigrants. It will reinforce stereotypes, they said. It will make them think that all immigrants and Spanish speakers are poor and in need of services. Hmmmm. Here is my question for them: what stereotypes are you reinforcing through your literature-based curriculum? What message are you sending by excluding this significant population of our country? 

Public discourse 
The demonization and criminalization of undocumented immigrants didn't begin with Donald Trump, but he certainly whipped up that hatred into a frenzy during his presidential campaign.

In this interview Melania Trump speaks specifically about immigration (2:55 to 4:17). Ask students to watch this part of the video and then using the information in the image at the top of this post, decide how she received her visa. And how did she have the resources to make all those trips out of the country?

Many students think she received her citizenship by marrying the Donald, but she didn't. Still not sure of the correct answer? Read here.

"I immigrated the right way," is a phrase that we must always challenge. It implies that others could do it "the right way," too, but they choose not to. Sometimes people say, "my grandparents/great grandparents came her the right way." I won't go into the history of our immigration laws here (and the questionable veracity of family lore), but those same people today often wouldn't have a pathway either.

You could write a book about the Trumps' attitudes about immigration. Read what Ivana Trump has to say about undocumented immigrants and why they are necessary in the US!

And if you want to understand better the fastest route to "legal immigration" to the US, read about the "Inmigrante Inversionista."

Public Policy

Beyond our public discourse on undocumented immigrants, we have public policies that control and constrain them. I have a chapter about public policy and foreign language community service learning in a forthcoming book from Multimedia MattersCreating Experiential Learning Opportunities for Language Learners, edited by Melanie Bloom and Carolyn Gascoigne. With the students I shared two:
  • ITIN. For people who do not have social security numbers, like undocumented immigrants, the IRS gives them an ITIN which they use to pay income tax and to get a mortgage to buy a home. So...undocumented immigrants DO pay taxes. They certainly pay all taxes for which there is no choice: sales taxes, property taxes, taxes/benefits taken out of every single person's paycheck by their employer. Many use the ITIN to pay income taxes. Furthermore, many citizens DO NOT pay taxes. The headlines today were about the list of very rich actors, politicians and business people who use shell corporation to avoid taxes. And many American citizens do service jobs (babysitting, hair cutting, gardening, lawn mowing, odd jobs) that they never report and pay taxes on.
  • TVDL. In Illinois, people without a social security number might now qualify for a TVDL. However, that doesn't mean that they will actually be helped by the employees at the DMV to obtain one. I have heard stories about people who inquired about getting a TVDL and were told misinformation by grumpy (racist? xenophobic?) DMV employees. There are also rumors of those employees asking for payment to "help" people get their TVDL. Just because there is a law on the books that is meant to provide a more just experience for undocumented immigrants doesn't mean that the human beings involved in that policy are being just themselves...
So there you have it. My notes. My resources. It's not a lesson plan. It's not a unit. But they are my thoughts. And the feedback I felt while I was with the students and after I left was that they were interested, intrigued and wanted to know more.

P.S. Tammy Jandrey Hertel shared this wonderful resource: "Gangs, Murder and Migration in Honduras" from Latino USA.

Katherine O'Donnell Christoffersen also shared this music video about ICE and the #Not1More hashtag we and our students can use in advocacy efforts. (You can also look at the Pinterest boards Florencia Henshaw and I have created: Videos about immigration and Música sobre la inmigración.)


  1. Thank you, Ann, for sharing! This is such an important topic that gets left out of the curriculum (Spanish and other disciplines) far too often.

    1. Thank you, Julie, for your comment. I agree. We show our respect for undocumented people in the US when we bring them into our discussions, not shut them out.


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