Talking About the Election with ELLs

Talking About the Election with ELLs

By Zach Spiering

In the culmination of an historic campaign, Donald J. Trump captured the most electoral votes to win the presidency of the United States this past November. Trump’s campaign promises cover a wide array of topics, but few are more polarizing than his statements about immigration. Most notably, Trump proposed building a wall on the Mexican border and banning Muslims from entering the U.S. (Diamond, 2016). Regardless of our individual political leanings, Trump’s statements during the campaign have created a lot of questions for the TESOL community in the U.S. and the people we serve.

While it is impossible to predict the actual policy changes that may or may not go into effect in the weeks and months after Trump takes office on January 20, 2017, the concern about those potential changes can have a significant impact on the immigrant and international student communities in America. Anecdotally, many of my students and other international students I know expressed fear and concern at the news that Trump had won the election. Additionally, many people fear Trump will roll back Obama’s Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA). By executive order, this program allowed undocumented students and workers in good standing who arrived before they were sixteen to register for work permits and receive protection from deportation (Magagnini, 2016).

It is important for teachers of English to be aware of the potential stressors and fears of their students. These could potentially raise students’ affective filters and decrease language learning motivation. Research has consistently shown that language learning motivation and a lowered affective filter are essential elements for second language acquisition (Hummel, 2014; Maftoon & Sabah, 2012).

Here are some helpful tips for addressing ELLs who are concerned about the upcoming presidential administration.

  • Acknowledge their concern. Whether you agree or disagree, recognize that your students may have legitimate concerns about the future of their immigration status or the immigration status of their community.
  • Be a force of calm for your students. “Now is not the time to panic,” advised one of the top immigration law experts, Kevin Johnson, of University of California, Davis. Johnson addressed concerns about DACA being revoked and registrations being used to speed deportation, stating that the worst case scenarios are highly unlikely (Magagnini, 2016). Should that happen, there are a number of potential legal and political solutions.
  • Teach a little U.S. government. Remind students that the power of the President is limited and checked by Congress and the Supreme Court as well as by the Constitution of the United States. While the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 gives the President broad authority in immigration policy, he is not above the law.
  • Be mindful of current events that may affect your students. While reports of hate crimes were exaggerated leading up to and in the immediate aftermath of the election, crimes against immigrants and internationals may have been exacerbated by campaign rhetoric. In October, a young Somali woman in Noel, MO was harassed and assaulted by strangers with a firearm, apparently for her appearance and dress. She wore a hijab (Lehr, 2016). It is likely that your students will be aware of such incidents. Remind them that most Americans are just as appalled by these behaviors as they are.
  • Trust your community. The most powerful allies we have are the members of our local communities who have consistently had a positive impact on immigrants and international students. Pascal Hamon, Academic Director of Missouri State University’s English Language Institute noted that while many of his students were initially apprehensive about their treatment by locals, an overwhelming majority say they have had a positive experience here. “I don’t believe this experience will suddenly change because of the election results,” he added.


Diamond, J. (July 24, 2016). Trump on latest iteration of Muslim ban: “You could say it’s an expansion”. CNN. Retrieved January 6, 2017, from

Hummel, K. (2014). Introducing second language acquisition. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell.

Lehr, J. (November 9, 2016). Two Noel residents accused of assaulting Muslim woman. The Joplin Globe. Retrieved January 6, 2017, from

Maftoon, P., & Sabah, S. (2012). A critical look at the status of affect in second language acquisition research: Lessons from Vygotsky’s legacy. BRAIN: Broad Research in Artificial Intelligence & Neuroscience, 3 (2), 36–42.

Magagnini, S. (November 25, 2016). UC Davis expert weighs Trump plan to deport illegal immigrants. The Sacramento Bee. Retrieved January 7, 2017, from

Zach Spiering is a graduate assistant at Missouri State University, where he teaches writing in the English Department and English to speakers of other languages in the English Language Institute. He previously taught English in Buraimi, Oman. With the help of his family, he has been a friend and advocate for internationals in his community and a homestay host.

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