Who can focus on Okonkwo’s motivations, SAT prep, or how to write a rhetorical analysis essay when you’re worried about whether or not your family will be picked up in an ICE raid at your apartment complex? Certainly, not any student who is directly or indirectly impacted by Trump’s executive orders on immigration (read this annotated NPR analysis of the January order or NY Times take on the revised travel ban).
Some educators think that students are over-reacting, that ICE agents won’t arrest parents or someone who is minding their own business, or that a school cannot be raided. These beliefs stem from misinformation and--to a certain extent-- chosen ignorance. After all, it’s pretty clear that immigrant rights are under attack. Yet hiding behind our citizenship privilege is much easier than searching the internet for data to triangulate or trying to understand why a student from a mixed-status family might be breaking down in your classroom.
If we care about students, then it’s worth taking the time to do what teachers do best--learn and advocate!
It was the desire to know more and to protect our students in an emergency that led my co-teacher, Monique LeTourneau, to appeal to our district school board shortly after the first executive order was signed. This resulted in a declaration from our board and a letter from our Superintendent announcing that Tacoma Public Schools is a safe zone for immigrant students. But many of us knew this wasn’t enough. Our students weren’t feeling safe. Parents were keeping their students at home. And fear was coming to the surface.
We knew we needed to do something else. Ideas evolved over collaborative lunches. The end result was a multi-pronged approach--to move what we could influence and control. As teacher leaders we knew we could speak with our principal to make an emergency plan and meet with our classified and certificated staff to ensure we all understood the basics of the issue and how to protect students. In our building we are implementing the advice from the AFT handbook. Meanwhile, my partner and fellow educator Nate Bowling began to dream of a teacher town hall where 100 educators could receive legal advice for how to support our undocumented students.
That dream came to the fruition. The Tacoma Education Association provided the space to meet. Nate and Monique compiled a stellar panel with representatives from the ACLU, Washington Dream Coalition, and Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. They shared their wisdom and knowledge and answered questions for the 130 educators in attendance and over 3,000 online viewers of our live feed.
My Takeaways from the Teacher Town Hall:
Immigration enforcement isn’t new. The Obama administration deported more immigrants than any previous president.
While the law is consistent, it seems like local authorities and laypersons alike don’t know what it says. There is a ton of misinformation circulating, but experts like the ACLU are current on the issues. Read and know your rights.
Enforcement of immigration laws seems left to the interpretation of enforcing authorities. I learned that it’s a federal misdemeanor to enter the US without documentation, but you can be in the US without official papers and it’s not a crime (CNN explains it pretty well here). Furthermore, authorities such as ICE and the local police department could interpret the notion of "criminal" completely different and enforce immigration laws in contradictory ways.
Always get a lawyer. While the state is not required to provide a lawyer (even if you ask for one), a lawyer is the only one who can really do anything for an undocumented person in custody---not parents, friends, or advocates...only the lawyer. It's recommended to keep an immigration lawyer's contact on hand.
Mixed status families experience a unique kind of fear due to the fact that they will literally be ripped apart with parents and children being separated from each other.
It will probably get worse before it gets better. Nuff said.
You can't do this work alone, but you can't wait for someone else to do it. We are in unprecedented times in our country. We cannot allow fear and uncertainty to immobilize us. Rather, we must maintain hope and organize for what we know and believe is right.
The last few months I’ve been inspired by my colleagues who strive to keep abreast of the changes in immigration policy in order to alleviate student fears and prepare to protect these children. I encourage you to do the same by organizing your own forums or reaching out to your school district to make a statement in support of your immigrant and refugee students. Start by reading the materials and watching the video from our event.