• October 28th, 2021
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Life for Students with Undocumented Parents


“Would you go?” This is the question that silences 16-year-old Jacqui, tightens her wide smile into a thin line, and provokes a low sigh.

Her mother sits next to her—motionless—her gaze transfixed on a crack in the sidewalk.

The answer is no. Simply, reluctantly, painfully, no. If push comes to shove, and federal immigration agents deport Jacqui’s parents to México, a country they left 18 years ago to find work, she would not go.

Jacqui would stay in the U.S., alone, to finish high school, go to college, and make good on her considered plans to earn a law degree. She is a citizen. They are not.

It’s a no-win situation that promises nothing but agony for millions of undocumented U.S. immigrant parents and their children.

“It is not something I like to think about,” says Jacqui quietly, closing the topic of conversation. Her mother still does not speak.

About one in 14 students, or 6.9 percent from kindergarten through twelfth grade, have at least one undocumented immigrant parent, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center report. Most are U.S.-born, American citizens, like Jacqui, while a much smaller number (1.4 percent) are undocumented themselves.

“One of our kindergarten teachers had a little boy who brought a suitcase with him to class for two days. When she asked him what it was for, he said ‘I want to make sure I have my special things when they come to get me.’”
Amie Baca-Oehlert

For the most part, their parents are like Jacqui’s. They crossed the border to find work at least a decade ago, statistics show, and then put down roots as their children grew. Jacqui’s mom has worked for years at a local dry cleaner, while her dad travels around Texas, installing specialized bathrooms.

Meanwhile, they go to church, shop for groceries, stop occasionally for a lemonade at Starbucks, and volunteer often in their communities, including their schools and Parent Teacher Associations (PTA).

Photo: Luis Gomez “Nobody is going anywhere. Our neighbor … won’t even leave the house to pick up her medicine,” says Cristal. “ICE could be anywhere.”

“We are not criminals,” Jacqui’s mother emphasizes. “We are mothers, and we are fathers. We are people who work, and who take care of our children. That’s it! Not criminals.”

Until recently, these undocumented parents felt safe mostly, or at least not so exposed, or hated, as they do now. But this spring and summer, as federal immigration raids increased, and as reports of immigration agents following school buses spread, a radiating fear unfurled in homes and schools.

With parents targeted, students are traumatized, unable to learn, educators say. “One of our kindergarten teachers had a little boy who brought a suitcase with him to class for two days,” says Colorado Education Association Vice President Amie Baca-Oehlert. “When she asked him what it was for, he said ‘I want to make sure I have my special things when they come to get me.’”

“These shocked and frightened families are our friends and our neighbors,” says NEA President Lily Eskelsen García of the shameful treatment. “As the Trump administration threatens our students, their families, and our way of life, we will not stay silent. As families turn to educators for solace and advice, we are going to accelerate our ongoing efforts.”

Photo: Luis Gomez Printed on this small card, tucked into the corner of a picture frame in an Austin house, are sentences that 15-year-old Cristal, or 10-year-old Nicolas, must read aloud—through the locked door—if ICE agents come for their parents.

In Austin, an effort called “Know Your Rights,” led by Education Austin and funded, in part, by an National Education Association (NEA) grant, provides much-needed, practical information to students, parents, and other community members on how to respond to immigration enforcement. Their work has been shared in Illinois, Arizona, and in Colorado, where the Colorado Education Association has partnered with advocacy groups to offer similar, statewide trainings. It also has been adapted by NEA for use across the nation.

Elsewhere, from Nebraska to New México, Milwaukee to Maine, NEA members are using sample “Safe Zone” school board resolutions and district policies developed by NEA’s Office of General Counsel.

This is how educators care for their students, and this is how educators’ unions support that work, says Austin first-grade teacher Maria Dominguez.

“Our parents and students are scared. This is reality,” she says. “And if we’re a union that fights for our students, we need to do this work.”

Be prepared is the message from their teachers. Get ready. Know your rights.

Tucked into the corner of a picture frame, mounted inches from the front door of an Austin house, is a small card, about the size of a typical business card, from Education Austin’s “Know Your Rights” campaign.

Printed on the card are the sentences that 15-year-old Cristal, or 10-year-old Nicolas, must read aloud—through the locked door—if federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents come for their parents.

“I do not wish to speak with you, answer your questions, or sign or hand you any documents based on my 5th Amendment rights… I do not give you permission to enter my home based on my 4th Amendment rights under the United States Constitution, unless you have a warrant to enter, signed by a judge or magistrate with my name on it that you slide under the door…”

Nearby, on the dining room table, is a folder where Cristal’s mother, the president of her neighborhood school’s PTA, has collected all of the papers recommended by her children’s teachers. This includes copies of her children’s U.S. passports, as well as a power-of-attorney statement that would allow Cristal and Nicolas to stay in Austin, under the guardianship of their godmother, if their parents are deported.

A visitor does not ask what would happen to 5-year-old sister Stefanie, who somersaults across the sofa to nestle near her mother.

Cristal, a high school freshman, has been volunteering to help at Education Austin’s trainings, where she passes out contact information for attorneys, counselors, social workers, and others.

Her mother and father, who came to the U.S. nearly two decades ago for work, are terrified, she says. Her uncle hasn’t left his house in a month. “My parents want me to stay, in case, you know…They don’t want me to leave here. They say, ‘You go to college,’” Cristal says. Her dream school is Texas State University in San Marcos. Her dream job is to be a social worker. “I want to help families,” she says.

But, she acknowledges, it’s hard to focus on school these days. “Teachers have to stop what they’re teaching to calm us down,” she says. But lately, many of her friends haven’t even been going to school. “Last month, I had just four kids in my class,” she says. Everybody else stayed home, hiding behind drawn curtains and locked doors.

This isn’t just an issue in Austin. During mid-February, one day after teams of ICE agents swept into a Las Cruces, N.M., trailer park and other homes, nearly 2,400 Las Cruces students stayed home from school.

“I went to the Walmart last month and it was empty. Nobody is going there. Nobody is going anywhere. Our neighbor, she has depression, but she won’t even leave the house to pick up her medicine,” says Cristal.

“ICE could be anywhere.”

Mary Ellen Flannery is a writer for the National Education Association; NEA EdJustice writers Sabrina Holcomb, David Sheridan, and Kate Snyder contributed to this article.