Skip to content
Three people pose for a selfie in front of various world flags.
Advocates for Immigrant Rights and Reconciliation Executive Director Karla Juárez, left, Community Organizer Rubi Perez, and Board Member Trinidad Raj Molina , spent the day at the Kansas State Capitol this summer, including meeting with Gov. Laura Kelly. Kauffman's grant to AIRR expands its Immigration 101 program to include public educators and professional organizations to better serve students of immigrant families.

Inclusive education begins with understanding who you’re teaching

AIRR Executive Director Karla Juárez discusses the importance of the Immigration 101 program to support students of immigrant families.

Advocates for Immigrant Rights and Reconciliation (AIRR) is working to build inclusive communities in the Kansas City area by educating, organizing, and inspiring communities to advocate for immigrant rights. Its programs help people know their rights, educate communities on the basics of immigration, and provide tools and advocacy for immigrant populations. Through its Kauffman-supported “Immigration 101” program, AIRR educates teachers, school board members, school administrators, and staff about the immigration process and provides training on how school communities can better support immigrant students.

Education regarding the immigration process is at the core of AIRR. The Kauffman grant expands this program to include public educators and professional organizations serving immigrant populations.

Here, AIRR Executive Director Karla Juárez shares how the organization is working to ensure immigrant students and their families have an inclusive educational experience and the resources they need to succeed.

Listen to the conversation between Karla Juárez and Laura Palacios (en español)

How does your own lived experience drive you to support students of immigrant families?

Immigration has literally been my life because I grew up undocumented until I was 22 years old. I too wanted to work like my friends but couldn’t because I didn’t have those numbers (a social security number). It also affected me a lot when entering college. There was a time when the world closed in on me, where I said, “I am not going to be able to go to college because I won’t be able to work.”

My mom has always told me, “You can do it,” but there were other voices. They told me at school that I should choose another career because I wouldn’t make it in the career that I wanted. It was my experiences as an immigrant, as an undocumented person, as a student, and as a daughter that led me to this work. Utilizing my experience has made me an expert on immigration – there is a great difference in having a lived experience.

How does AIRR coordinate with teachers to support immigrant families?

A large group of people receive awards from Revolucion Educativa and pose for a photo holding them.
Advocates for Immigrant Rights and Reconciliation Executive Director Karla Juárez received the 2022 Impacto Changemaker award from Revolucion Educativa. Kauffman’s grant to AIRR expands its Immigration 101 program to include public educators and professional organizations to better serve students of immigrant families.

This arose from the shared experiences some of our interns and I had as first-generation graduates navigating school, and finding a pathway toward a higher education. Some of the school counselors told us that we couldn’t go to college because we were undocumented. We decided to focus “Immigration 101” on the counselors and teachers so that they can counsel students that it is possible to go to university, even if they don’t have the documents. There are several programs and scholarships out there for undocumented people.

We want people to bring their questions so that we can have those difficult conversations.

What is the biggest obstacle to inclusivity in the classroom and in the school community?

Language, above all. Not just having enough teachers who speak Spanish but having enough resources to recruit more teachers who speak certain languages or to obtain interpreters for people who speak other languages. Language also has a lot to do with how teachers interact with parents. Part of my experience was arriving in the United States and not having a teacher who could speak my language or communicate with my mother. At my point of arrival, I had to communicate with my teacher through other students. One of the primary things I would’ve wanted as a daughter is for my mother to feel more comfortable getting involved in my education. 

As young people, we learn English very quickly, but as we learn the language having a person that speaks your language is important.

What conditions need to change for students to feel included? 

As teachers, we need to understand who we are teaching and what their situation is. So, the goal of our program is to have this training available in every school for teachers who want to help their students feel included – and that they too can go to college. Conversations about going to college start in the ninth or tenth grade. By the eleventh grade they are asking you to apply for colleges. I have heard from a lot of people that counselors tell students, “Oh, go apply for DACA,” as if it were that simple. We in the field of immigrant justice know that DACA is not open to everyone, and right now it is not open for anyone to apply for the first time. Helping a student feel included includes knowing who they are talking to and what their situation may be.

What are the impacts of having teachers or leaders in schools who are dedicated to student-inclusion as a classroom focus?

There is a big impact in the personal, or academic, and economic sense from knowing a little bit about immigration and having access to resources. Parents would feel more included in their kids’ education if there was someone who spoke their language and may feel less overwhelmed. I have met students here in Kansas City, Missouri, who don’t go to college because their parents are undocumented, and they get asked for their tax information in order to complete the federal application for funds (FAFSA). Sometimes their parents tell them not to go, or they have been counseled at school that college is not for them because they are undocumented. We want to have counselors and teachers who know that simply because individuals are undocumented, it doesn’t mean that they can’t go to college and graduate or open their business!

I’m not saying that they need to have all the answers, right? I am saying that they can look for resources, organizations like ours, that can connect the family and the student with more resources. Then the impact would be, upon knowing those basic things and knowing how to look for those resources, the impact would be very great.

Don’t be afraid to ask! We are an organization that want people to ask the questions that may be difficult sometimes and we don’t judge because we believe we are all in a learning space.

What are your dreams for immigrant families in Kansas City?

The big dream is for them to be counseled with the things to help them achieve their goals. One of those is for them to know that college is indeed possible for them, even if their parents are undocumented or they have other difficulties. Yes. It’s possible.