Experiences with Civic Identity and Belonging: The Case of Resettled Refugee and Newcomer Students in U.S. Schools


 Presenter (s) S. Garnett Russell, Paula Mantilla-Blanco, Katrina Webster, Amlata Persaud (Teachers College, Columbia University)

The rise of mass global displacement poses challenges to the nation-state and conceptions of citizenship and rights (Bloemraad, Korteweg, and Yurdakul 2008; Castles 2017; Miller-Idriss 2006; Ong 2006; Soysal 1994). It also raises important questions about how schools should teach citizenship and civic values to students who have recently arrived in the U.S. The U.S. is a diverse society with the highest number of immigrants in the world (14 percent of the population is foreign-born) (Banks, Suárez-Orozco, and Ben-Peretz 2016). Newcomer immigrant students and refugees resettled to the United States come from diverse countries and represent a range of religious, ethnic, linguistic, and cultural backgrounds. Although the U.S. has historically accepted more resettled refugees than any other country, that pattern is rapidly changing under the current administration: the 2018 quota of 45,000 refugees is the lowest number in the past thirty years (Pew Research Center, 2017). Moreover, the current political climate has brought about a surge in nationalistic and xenophobic discourse and a rise in anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiments by major national leaders (Banks 2017). This study examines student notions of citizenship, rights, and belonging among students, particularly refugee and newcomer immigrant students, exploring the following questions: How do refugees and newcomer immigrant students understand concepts of civic identity and belonging and how does this differ from U.S. born students? How do schools and social contexts shape the civic experience of these youth?

Previous studies have investigated civic identity and belonging (Abu El-Haj 2007; Banks 2017; Suárez-Orozco, Suárez-Orozco, and Todorova 2009) and understanding of human rights (Bajaj, Canlas, and Argenal 2017) among immigrant youth. Other studies have explored the experience of refugee students in U.S. schools, specifically focusing on barriers and challenges refugee students encounter (see for example, He, Bettez, and Levin 2017; Mendenhall, Bartlett, and Ghaffar-Kucher 2017; Mosselson 2007; Roxas and Roy 2012). However, the extant literature does not specifically explore issues of civic identity and belonging among refugee youth and how their perspective differs from immigrant youth, nor does the literature consider different school and social contexts. Situated in frameworks around civic identity and belonging (Abu El-Haj 2007; Banks 2017; Suárez-Orozco et al. 2009), our study seeks to shed light on these concepts among newcomer immigrant and refugee students in U.S. schools.

We draw on mixed methods data collected from students and teachers in four high schools, which serve newcomer and resettled refugee youth, in two diverse states (New York and Arizona). We conducted a survey with 286 students; in-depth interviews with students, teachers, and school administrators; and more than 250 hours of classroom observations during the 2018-2019 school year. Initial findings point to the importance of the broader policy and social context across the two field sites, as well as the school culture, in how students understand their civic identity, sense of belonging, and experiences with bullying and discrimination. We find differences in school, state, length of time in the U.S., and characteristics linked to identity (gender, nationality, etc) explain variation in students’ conceptions of civic identity and belonging. We discuss policy implications for schools and districts with high numbers of refugee and newcomer students.

Understanding civic identity and the sense of belonging among newly arrived immigrant and refugee youth provides insight into the experience of these students in schools. In addition, the study provides critical evidence on the extent to which schools are promoting identification with an inclusive civic culture, with implications for policy and practice.

1 Response

  1. Hannah

    These findings are very interesting, especially the differences between your chosen groups (newcomers, resettled from refugee countries, etc.). I’d love to learn more about what you were observing while in the classroom, and your methods for interpreting what you saw. I’m also excited to see your policy recommendations!

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