Equity & Diversity

Immigrant Students Are ‘Being Rocked in Really Profound Ways’

By Corey Mitchell — March 12, 2018 3 min read
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From students crying in a counselor’s office to those who skip school altogether amid rumors of Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids, the fear of deportation is terrifyingly real for immigrant children and their families.

There’s the uncertainty hanging over the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and the decision by the Trump administration to end temporary legal status for hundreds of thousands of Haitian and Salvadoran immigrants displaced by catastrophic earthquakes in their home countries.

For a story in Education Week’s special report on Teaching Vulnerable Students, we talked to educators in Boston, Los Angeles, and Oakland, Calif., about what they’re doing to support students and help them feel safe. More than 80 percent of educators said they have students who are concerned about immigration enforcement, according to a new national survey from the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Selemawi “Mawi” Asgedom has traveled the country for years, speaking to students about his life as a refugee. The former English-language learner from Ethiopia has worked with schools in 40 states to address the social and emotional learning needs of ELL students, many of whom are immigrants. He said he’s never seen students more fearful.

“You have students come up and talk to you, but one of them said something to me that just kind of rocked me to my core. She said, ‘Listen, I love all this stuff, but you got to understand, I’m terrified every day that I’m going to get deported.’ And she started crying, and it’s only when you look the students in the eye, and you see the deep pain, the uncertainty, the terror, and the helplessness that they feel, that sets ... It sinks home for you at that deep level,” Asgedom said.

“Because at some point, what gets lost in the statistics, the legislation, the big national macro things where we’re trying to balance the needs of the federal government with the local school districts, is these are people, one at a time, who are affected in really profound ways and who are being rocked in really profound ways.”

Asgedom tries to get students to focus on what they can control, and that includes their approach to school.

“That student that I saw from Haiti, that was worried about being deported to Haiti ... What I shared with her is, I said to her, “Hey, listen. We don’t control so many things, right? But let’s focus on things we can control, like you control how you show up at school, don’t you, whether you work hard and whether you do your best to pay attention in class, and whether you set yourself up to be successful long-term. You control that.”

“What happens is the mindset of everything is shut off ... it prevents you from seeing the opportunities that are actually there. It prevents you from seeing there’s ... a lot of people who want to help you, or want to work with you.”

At the Monseñor Oscar Romero Charter School in Los Angeles, the administration brought on full-time social workers to its three campuses to help address an upturn in disciplinary issues sparked by the uncertainty in their students’ lives.

In Boston, people who want to work with immigrant students include the Unafraid Educators, a committee within the Boston Teachers Union that supports undocumented students. The school district also has established a ‘We Dream Together’ campaign, which works to make clear the rights that immigrant students have and links families to immigration-support services.

Plyler v. Doe, the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, declared that children are entitled to receive a free public K-12 education in the United States regardless of their immigration status. Because of that, many school districts make a point to not ask questions about immigration status, in part because the threat of exposing the status of a parent or guardian could discourage parental involvement or even keep them from enrolling students in school altogether.

“How do we still create a safe space for young people [when] we don’t even know who they are?” asked Claudia Martinez, a Boston schools counselor who founded the Unafraid Educators group. “We came up with ideas around actions and initiatives that we could carry out in our schools and throughout the district that would send a message to undocumented students and to families, that they were cherished, that they were welcome in our schools, and that we were going to do what we could to support them.”

Photo Credit: A sign on teacher Nora Paul-Schultz’s classroom door announces her support for undocumented students at Boston’s John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science. --M. Scott Brauer for Education Week

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.