Learning about immigration, beyond Ellis Island

Tatyana Kleyn, a biligual education professor at City College, wants to change the way the topic of immigration is taught in public schools. Her new book, Immigration: The Ultimate Teen Guide, which comes out in May, attempts to show the history that a lot of textbooks currently leave out.

“Because we’re in New York, we make it all about Ellis Island,” Kleyn says. “But we didn’t stop there. Our students didn’t arrive at Ellis Island, and the majority of them aren’t Europeans.”

Kleyn, 37, came to the United States from the Soviet Union with her family when she was five years old.

In her opinion, even if it is a challenge for teachers to cover a topic as volatile as immigration, it’s important to make the effort to avoid marginalizing immigrant students in the classroom.

Her book covers the history of immigration into the United States as is taught traditionally in schools, but it also presents the different types of immigrants–for example, undocumented immigrants and refugees–and the issues of discrimination and the cultural differences that affect them all. Kleyn’s book also discusses the impact of both existing and proposed laws concerning immigrants.

Kleyn works closely with undocumented students at City College. One of the students, Arline Herrera, 20, says that they didn’t discuss immigration at her high school.

“When I was in school, I thought that I wouldn’t be able to go to college,” says Herrera, who is now in her third year of Childhood Education at City College. She added that she would have been more optimistic at the time if she had had some of the information in Kleyn’s book.

Many undocumented young people, like Herrera, begin classes in higher education and then realize that they aren’t like their friends: They can’t drive, vote, study abroad or gain access to federally- financial aid programs.

“When they fall into this state of limbo that is often confusing;  they get annoyed and feel let down. And a lot of times they fall into a deep depression because they can’t do anything with their lives,” says Jong-Min, 31, who arrived in the United States from South Korea a year after he was born.

After graduating magna cum laude from the University of Tennessee eight years ago with a degree in Sociology, Jong-Min has been working in his parents’ shop, as well as doing various jobs in construction and working at pizzerias. But his dream is to go to law school and one day serve on the Supreme Court.

Professor Kleyn sees students like Jong-Min every day. She says that many of the brightest students are undocumented and are afraid that when they graduate, they won’t be able to find work or follow their dreams of pursuing graduate studies.

An undocumented master’s student at City College, who identifies herself as Jacqueline C., 25, helped Kleyn with her textbook. She is also one of the founders of the New York State Youth Leadership Council, a group of undocumented students that advocate for the approval of the DREAM Act.

Jacqueline C. recognizes that it’s going to be difficult to be a teacher in the public education system once she graduates, but she says she doesn’t have another option besides continuing to fight.

“I’m not going to conform with anything else that isn’t implementing my degree, that’s why I’ve been working so hard,” Jacqueline C. says, who maintains three part-time jobs to pay for her master’s.

Preferring not to give her last name, she says that many teachers feel uncomfortable discussing such a controversial subject.

“This book not only provides current means and information, but it also tells the stories of individuals who are facing these problems and what they are doing to change their situation,” she says.

Kleyn, is working to get the book adopted by public school teachers and translated into Spanish.

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