Teaching and Learning Immigration Politics as a Local Issue

Political Science Educator: volume 26, issue 1


Kelly Bauer, Nebraska Wesleyan University, and Hyeonju Wang, Nebraska Wesleyan University

Teaching immigration politics in Nebraska is challenging. While there is a significant immigrant community, there are deep public opinion divisions (Vogt et al. 2019, see also Bauer et al 2021, Ceballos and Yakushko 2014, Chávez 2009, Gouveia et al. 2005). Reflection papers assigned on Day 1 are bimodal. Either students see immigration politics from a distance, perhaps sharing some curiosities about national headlines but quickly highlighting their distance to the conversation by highlighting they are in the class to learn (and many share they have never met an immigrant), or students have intimate first or second-hand experiences with immigration. How can the classroom be a space for dialogue and learning across this often-overwhelming variation in students’ proximity to immigration politics? In this essay, we highlight how starting the class with local immigration events and conversations can bridge these gaps in proximity to immigration politics to facilitate collective conversation and learning.

The class starts with case studies of key  immigration conversations and current events in recent Nebraska history: Fremont housing ordinance debates, COVID-19 at meatpacking plants, ICE raids at an O’Neill tomato farms, local 287g agreements, recent refugee arrivals, and an ACLU wrongful detention case. While many students think that ICE raids, for example, happen elsewhere, these cases challenge students’ frames of reference. Students also spend a class period grouped up based on the size of the community they grew up in to interrogate how identity formation happened in that community. Who were the out groups in their communities, and how was that implemented and maintained? How did immigration impact these processes? This class period is profound, as students draw on their local expertise, and observe similar patterns of individual and group identity formation in neighboring or similar towns. Through this local focus, students started to think about immigration as a political phenomenon impacting their communities, and to interrogate both narratives of immigration they grew up with and the potential disconnects between national and local narratives of immigration.

This local focus makes several pedagogical moves. Structuring the class around local narratives requires students to learn from their own narratives, as well as those of their classmates and first-person course materials, challenging students’ thinking and facilitating empathic scaffolding with future content mapping on prior experiences (Bauer & Clancy, 2018). These first person and local narratives reflect a critical raced-gendered epistemology and pedagogy that recognizes students as holders and creators of knowledge (Bernal 2002, Rodriguez 2008). First-person, narrative, and local course content structures whose voices should be learned from and challenges students’ ability to objectify a perceived “other” (Chaisson 2005). Ultimately, this approach prioritizes learning from and with a particular group of students in a particular place.

The local focus on immigration allowed students to engage in a more dynamic conversation with each other, particularly during the discussion groups based on community size. These discussion groups shifted the conversation away from party politics or affiliations related to immigration, softening preconceived stances on national level immigration politics. This changed the conversation dynamics from “listen and respond” (in agreement or disagreement) to “listen and learn.” In prior conversations, the high-tension immigration politics often led students to listen and respond with varying opinions, sometimes leading to quick dismissal of a student’s opinion based on their politics. When discussing immigration in the context of specific communities, students listened with curiosity and asked follow-up questions because each students’ lived experience varied, creating opportunities for learning from each other. Immigration became a topic where students shared which aspects of immigration politics were visible in the communities they grew up in. From these discussions, students made observations about their communities through comparing and identifying which parts of immigration politics were invisible (or less visible) in their communities.

This content and these discussion groups led to two outcomes. First, it bridged differences between students’ proximity to and language about immigration at the start of the class. Within the discussion groups based on community sizes, the conversations were less based on othering immigrants with references of “they” or collectivizing language like “illegal.” Rather, the conversations shifted to “in my school” or “this person I know.” For example, a student would share that “in my school” there was an ELL class where immigrant and refugee students spent parts of their days learning English. Not only did this bridge a proximity gap on the topic of immigration, but the students’ shift in language removed some of the dehumanizing language that was once more frequent in the classroom, particularly during conversations surrounding national headlines where it was easier to reference the “other.” Second, by identifying in conversation which aspects of immigration politics were visible or invisible in our students’ communities, the class started to see the similarities and disconnects between lived, local experiences and national headlines.

Certainly, there are challenges to this approach that faculty should carefully consider. It takes a lot of time to curate course content of local immigration politics. There are rich resources from NGOs, podcasts, newspapers, dissertation research, and some academic articles, but finding these materials and translating them into a coherent, accessible course schedule is challenging. These choices come through in evaluations. Local immigration politics are locally and nationally politicized in different ways at different points in time; students enter the classroom with a range of understandings and narratives (or lack of) about local events, and these shifts complicate class planning. Students have perceived the course’s early focus on local conversations to distance us from national policy debates and events, and sometimes share that they wish we had spent more time on these national conversations and policies. This is particularly true at times when national immigration politics catches students’ attention, leading to less enthusiasm for local conversations. Some students have observed that this focus allows students to learn politically correct language from the local conversations, which can also limit the scope of national politics conversations. But, asking students to engage with national debates, without a prior interrogation of individual and collective identity politics, risks legitimizing problematic and dehumanizing rhetoric and policies that impact many in the class.

How can other political science instructors integrate local politics into their courses about topics like immigration? Small changes have made a big difference in our course, such as asking students to write day 1 and end-of-semester reflections on their thinking about both national and local immigration politics. In addition to providing the instructor insight into students’ experiences that might integrate into the classroom, students are often surprised by their day 1 writing at the end of the semester. Adding in 1 or 2 early class periods or discussions on local immigration politics, or add a local current event into other course content may also be effective, small changes. This is particularly powerful when students generate some of this content based on their interests and experiences, and are able to develop and share their expertise with the class.


Bauer, Kelly, and Kelly Clancy. 2018. “Teaching Race and Social Justice at a Predominantly White Institution.” Journal of Political Science Education 14 (1):72-85.

Bauer, Kelly, Samantha Redfern, Hyeonju Wang, and Sienna Woo. 2021. Surpassing the Wall of Nebraska Nice: Analysis of Immigration Rhetoric in Nebraska Journalism. Great Plains Research, 31(1), 57-73.

Bernal, Dolores Delgado. 2002. “Critical race theory, Latino critical theory, and critical raced-gendered epistemologies: Recognizing students of color as holders and creators of knowledge.” Qualitative inquiry 8 (1):105-126.

Ceballos, Miguel, and Oksana Yakushko. 2014. “Attitudes toward Immigrants in Nebraska.” Great Plains Research 24 (2): 181– 95.

Chaisson, Reba L. “A crack in the door: Critical race theory in practice at a predominantly white institution.” Teaching Sociology 32, no. 4 (2004): 345-357.

Chávez, Karma R. 2009. “Remapping Latinidad: A Performance Cartography of Latina/o Identity in Rural Nebraska.” Text and Performance Quarterly 29 (2):165– 82.

Gouveia, Lourdes, Miguel A. Carranza, and Jasney Cogua. 2005. “The Great Plains Migration: Mexicanos and Latinos in Nebraska.” In New Destinations: Mexican Immigration in the United States, ed. Víctor Zúñiga and Rubén Hernández- León, 23– 49. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Rodriguez, Arturo. “Toward a transformative teaching practice: Criticity, pedagogy and praxis.” The International Journal of Learning (2008).

Vogt, Rebecca, Cheryl Burkhart- Kriesel, Randolph Cantrell, Bradley Lubben, L. J. McElravy, Timothy Meyer, and Jason Weigle. 2019. “Perceptions of Immigration Among Nonmetropolitan Nebraskans: Nebraska Rural Poll Research Report 19- 2.” Publications of the Rural Futures Institute (University of Nebraska), 25. https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/rfipubs/25.

Kelly Bauer is an assistant professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at Nebraska Wesleyan University.

Heyonju Wang was an undergraduate in the Class of 2019 at Nebraska Wesleyan University and is an incoming Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota.

Published since 2005, The Political Science Educator is the newsletter of the Political Science Education Section of the American Political Science Association. All issues of the The Political Science Educator can be viewed on APSA Connects Civic Education page.

Editors: Colin Brown (Northeastern University), Matt Evans (Northwest Arkansas Community College)

Submissions: editor.PSE.newsletter@gmail.com

APSA Educate has republished The Political Science Educator since 2021. Any questions or corrections to how the newsletter appears on Educate should be addressed to educate@apsanet.org

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