• January 25th, 2022
  • Tuesday, 04:17:44 PM

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Communities Unite for Undocumented Students

To Vicente Rodríguez, activism comes as naturally as breathing.

That’s why the University of California, Riverside DREAMer is studying to become a high school English and ethnic studies teacher; for him, teaching and activism are linked. That’s also why wherever he goes, he takes a supply of “Know Your Rights” cards that explain the constitutional protections afforded to the millions of other undocumented immigrants like him.

What Vicente’s doing is crucial at a time of mass deportations and threats to immigrant communities. On May 1, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools was promoting its “Build Schools Not Walls” campaign with actions across the country emphasizing that every community deserves public schools in which immigrant students and their families are safe, respected, and loved.

The National Education Association (NEA) is a partner in that campaign. You can pledge to “Rise Up and Stand in Solidarity” with immigrants, students, and families by visiting http://educationvotes.nea.org/may-1st-pledge/.  On May 1, supporters also switched out their Facebook profile picture for a butterfly, the symbol of migration that has become a touchstone for the immigration movement, and used the hashtag #RiseUp in social media posts.

“It hit me hard: I was living a secret life. I thought about all the things that could have happened and how I could have been deported. At the same time, I knew I couldn’t be scared, because I had to live.”

As a member of the Student California Teachers Association, Vicente constantly reaches out to future “undocu-educators”: DREAMers who are preparing for careers as educators. The way he sees it, they’re in a great position to provide all students—particularly those who are undocumented—with the support and tools they need for success.

Vicente’s parents came to California in the ‘70s from México. His brother and sister were born here in 1981 and 1982. His parents returned to México briefly, and that’s where he was born. They came back to California when he was just 9 months old, and in 1991 and 1992, another brother and sister were born in California.

Vicente graduated high school in 2005, and, encouraged by his parents, attended community college. “I had to pay full tuition out of pocket and also find ways to support myself and my family while I was in school,” he says. “I often worked at mom-and-pop shops where they paid me under the table and often way below the minimum wage, to the point of exploitation. But it was a way to survive.”

He wasn’t fearful about his status when he was a teen. “You grow up kind of rebellious and believe you can conquer the world without thinking of the repercussions.” But when he transferred to the University of California, reality set in.

“It hit me hard: I was living a secret life. I thought about all the things that could have happened and how I could have been deported. At the same time, I knew I couldn’t be scared, because I had to live.”

In the current climate, Vicente is more on edge than he’s ever been. The days following President Trump’s election were especially tough. That weekend, he got the “Know Your Rights” card at a workshop sponsored by the Inland Empire-Immigrant Youth Collective. (You can download and print out the card at http://s3.amazonaws.com/assets.iamerica.org/c4/s3fs-public/files/know_your_rights_one-sheet_cut_outs.jpg.)
Despite his anxiety, he won’t allow fear of what could happen down the road to stand in the way of what he can do right now through SCTA.

“I really love being part of SCTA, and every chance I get, within the union itself, I talk about the rights of undocumented students, and I advocate for them.” He connects with California Teachers Association members who want to know more about what they can do for DREAMers, and readily shares his experience and points them to resources—including the Know Your Rights cards. Vicente sees NEA as a natural advocate for undocumented students and families, as well as undocumented educators.

He also advocates through UC Riverside. “I co-presented with Associate Professor Jennifer Nájera at the Institute for Teachers of Color Committed to Racial Justice on what teachers can do to protect the rights of undocumented students and help them feel safe.”

Since Trump’s inauguration, extreme immigration raids have increased, more families have been separated, and we’ve witnessed the deportation of the first protected DREAMer. But Vicente will remain open about his status even though his own DACA just expired and hasn’t yet been renewed. Not only does his refusal to hide in the shadows allow him to be a resource; it sends the message that his life is as much a part of the American story as anyone else’s.

“It takes up a lot of energy, but I want to be a source of comfort, and when I become a teacher, I want my students to know that ‘Hey, I have your back.’”

And we, as NEA members, have the backs of Vicente and all the other students, current undocu-educators, and aspiring educators in our midst. Vicente says: We sometimes don’t recognize the political power we have in our union. But that power can make big changes in our community.”

Lily Eskelsen García, an elementary teacher from Utah, is President of the National Education Association.