Talking about immigration with kids

by / Aug 11, 2022


This interview is from A Kids Book About: The Podcast, with host Matthew Winner and author of A Kids Book About Immigration, MJ Calderon. It has been lightly edited for clarity. 



What is immigration?  


Immigration refers to moving from one place to another. In this case, immigration is moving to a new country from the country you were born in. 


We’ll talk in a moment about reasons why individuals or families might leave their home country, but I want to first acknowledge a country’s government in this process.


The government of the country that a person or family is trying to enter follows a process to classify each incoming person based on the reason they left their home country. 


Different statuses are given different rights or protections.


An immigrant is someone that moves to a new country and settles there legally or illegally. A refugee is a person that is running away from danger and follows a procedure to be allowed into a different country. 


But itself, most undocumented immigrants are also running away from different sources of danger, which is interesting because the laws currently in place don't consider every reason enough to be a refugee. 




Refugee status is granted to those fleeing a recognized conflict in another country. But, as MJ shared, not every conflict or circumstance qualifies for the person to be seen as a refugee in the eyes of the law. 


It’s complicated why people leave their home country. It’s also very personal.


Yeah. There's many, many different reasons why people leave their home country.


It all really depends where in the world they live, their living situation, social class, their family, or in their environment in general. 


But some of the most common reasons are the lack of basic human needs, like food, healthcare, proper education. The lack of opportunities their home countries have to offer.


And of course, mentioning it again that some of the biggest reasons are running away from crime.  



If you are a listener in the United States and if you and your family have always lived in the United States, you may notice new families immigrating to our country and to your state and to your city and maybe even to your school. And this experience might be unfamiliar to you. 


But there are also US citizens who immigrate to other countries. 


And, to be honest, it’s not really our business to know why or how someone or someone’s family came to our country. As I said, it’s personal. If they choose to share with us, we bear the responsibility of their trust that we will take good care of them and of their story. 


MJ shared his story with us. He trusted us with this story. So as you listen, bear that in mind. It’s a privilege and an honor that he shared. Here’s MJ.


You know, it's a really interesting question because I've recently asked myself and my community, why do people not talk about their journey to the U.S. and crossing the border? 


And for example, to start with myself, I think that the journey's just really hard to digest and even more for children. But I'll share with you guys a little bit. 


It took us, it took me and my little brother two weeks to arrive to Oregon and finally be reunited with my mother after many years. 


On our way here, we were taken to different houses with different people. And unfortunately, most of the people that we encountered were really unkind to us. And the thing now, that we were children then. I remember riding in different cars. We even ride in trunks, on the floor of the cars. We weren't really allowed to pick our heads up. 


We actually as children understood that we were being smuggled in this country.


It wasn't very safe. It was not a safe trip for anyone, but it's specifically for children. 


I remember clearly that we ran into another set of siblings, much younger than us. The little boy was crying and his sister was trying to pamper him. It was really, really emotional, I think, to see. 


So later on we were told that the little boy was crying because they knew that they were being separated. They weren't continuing the trip together. And, I remember my mom calling me and letting me know that she had paid enough money to the person smuggling us to allow us to continue the journey together. 


And I see that now I understand why most people don't speak about their journey for a couple reasons. From personal experience I've learned that people who don't understand this process., that people aren't familiar with the idea of immigration, hear my story and don’t... They don't care about the hardship. They focus on the fact that we're here illegally.  


And secondly, on top of it all, there's a lack of validation. Talking about our journey is reliving trauma and emotional damage. 


I think that that is a door that every immigrant isn't usually ready to open. We're usually told, “Be thankful you made it here.” Like if your story ends on the other side of the border, and it's hard for me to talk about it, it makes me sad to remember all the details. 





To repeat, “Talking about our journey is reliving trauma and emotional damage. I think that  that is a door that every immigrant isn’t usually ready to open.”


I was moved by MJ’s story when he first shared it with me. And I’m moved again now. 


I think about all of the kids I’ve taught who were immigrants to the United States. I think about their families. I think about the hundreds of decisions that led them from where they were to where they ended up, and that where they ended up was, in small part, with me. 


And that makes me feel big emotions as well. For how I welcome them. For how I honor their story. For how I offer support to them. 

I feel like being an immigrant makes me feel a little, like, vulnerable in a way. It makes me feel like no matter how hard I try, I don't belong. 


It's a really interesting question because… and then again, let me find the right words to more clearly explain. 


There's many aspects of my life where it comes up. The fact that I'm not able to do as many things as other people. It's hard to explain how it makes me feel. I remember asking people around when I was writing down the answers and there [were] many different answers. 


One of them is, “Oh, I actually don't like to think about it.” And then there's other people that have so much to say that I can go on and on and on about the feeling of being an immigrant in this country. 


The truth is I don't think you ever stop being an immigrant. 


I've seen it a lot. Even once one achieves a safe, legal status. Those in this country and society itself, remind us immigrants that we are not born here. 


For example, Oregon recently approved licenses for everyone living in the state, regardless of their legal status, but the licenses for immigrants aren't real IDs. They're marked. So is that a reminder and for the world to know that there's a difference between U.S. citizen and undocumented immigrants. 


I think that it really depends on, like you said, the person. And I think everyone I've run into no matter their legal status, if they got the opportunity to fix it, they always remember who they are. 


And again, being an immigrant is not for us. It's not just an obstacle. It's a reminder of our roots and the community we represent. So we do take pride in being an immigrant. There's nothing wrong. But I don't think that anyone ever stops being an immigrant regardless of their legal status, you know? 



MJ has said some moving, vulnerable things in our conversation so far and it often left me at a loss for words. That’s when I would turn back to the words in MJ’s book to look for guidance. 


MJ writes in A Kids Book About Immigration, “The legal status of a person should not be used to stereotype or dehumanize anyone. Oftentimes, mentioning it or bringing it up is unnecessary. Everyone around you deserves to be treated with respect, fairness, and kindness.”


And so I asked MJ if there is ever an appropriate time to talk with someone about their legal status. Here’s MJ.


In a given case, be mindful of the words that you choose to ask this question. For starters, it's important to mention, like in the book, do not use the word “illegal.” Try and say “undocumented”. 


Also to be very honest, like we've mentioned most of the time, there's no need to bring up someone's legal status, but I know I find myself in situations that I unfortunately needed to mention it, like at the bank when I'm opening a new bank account. 


So when I do need to clarify my legal status and say it out loud, the best response that I've gotten from people is when they truly listen to me. 


Personally, it makes me anxious and nervous to talk about my legal status. So again, when I need to bring it up, I like when people don't ask more. When they allow me to say as much as I want to share, and don't ask about anything else, because if I didn't mention it, I probably don't want to talk about it. And that's okay. But if you’re curious, for some reason, just don't ask rudely or unnecessary or insinuating anything type of questions.


Now, if someone shares that information with you, do not pass it on to anyone else. 


I know sometimes you want to help and if you do have some help. I think that is better if you ask the person first, if it's okay to share that information.



MJ knows and I know that you all have an incredible capacity to care and to love and to support. 


MJ leaves you these words, and he leaves them for the grownups in your life, too. We need this reminding. It helps us all to keep our work and our hearts focused.


I know children are little, but I think we should highly encourage children to get politically involved as they grow up. 


Just take a look at the current immigration laws in place. Do your own research, obviously to encourage future politics change. Understand, like just everyone else, when you show respect towards people that encourages my community to believe in themselves. And then they ask for respect themselves. 


It's like planting positive seeds in my community. I've seen it in my mom. When her clients at work show her respect and kindness, she starts to realize that that's how it should always have been, you know? And I've seen that positive influence in my mother and it's definitely that giving respect and not just giving and receiving what it, but it just.. Wow.


It makes me feel emotional because I've seen my mother go through so much and I feel like I'm just beginning this journey of an adult. So it changes. My views have changed throughout the years as being an immigrant child now and an immigrant adult. 


But definitely, the way you can make the most impact is by just being kind to people.




Each week on A Kids Book About: The Podcast, we talk about the big things going on in your world with a different author from our A Kids Book About series. This week we spoke with MJ Calderon, author of A Kids Book About Immigration