Federal Opinion

Child Separations Are Cruel. Teachers, We Must Speak Out

By Justin Minkel — July 17, 2018 7 min read
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Teachers are not supposed to be political. But we cannot help being human. What has unfolded along our country’s southern border is not simply a political divide over immigration policy. It is a human rights catastrophe that rests on a fundamental question: Do the bodies, minds, and emotions of the 2,551 young children taken from their parents matter as much as those of the children we teach? Are these taken children as fully real to us as our own sons and daughters?

My 2nd graders are exactly the kinds of children the Trump administration took from their families last month. Most of my students are Latino, many of them undocumented, all of them poor.

The author with one of his former students.
—Kevin Briggs, Arkansas Department of Education.


These 7-year-olds are precisely as imaginative, hilarious, sensitive, loving, and occasionally infuriating as my own 7-year-old son. Yet our nation has treated them in a way we would never dare treat children whose parents have more money or paler skin.

Like most Americans who have not let themselves turn away, I have had trouble sleeping these past many weeks. One of those sleepless nights was a direct result of Senator Elizabeth Warren’s report of her trip to Brownsville, Texas, to visit a detention center. She told the story of a Guatemalan mother she met there:

One mother had been detained with her child. They were sleeping together on the floor of one of the cages when, at 3:00 am, the guards took her away. She last saw her 7-year-old son sleeping on the floor. She cried over and over, “I never got to say goodbye.” That was early June, and she hasn’t seen him since.

That 7-year-old child could have been any one of my students. He could have been my son. He could have been yours.

When Donald Trump signed the executive order stopping the family separations, in response to the overwhelming and bipartisan pressure coming from every quarter—from faith leaders to 13 Republican Senators to all four living First Ladies—I could suddenly breathe again. But with 2,000 children still separated from their families, and less care taken to reunify them than the typical airline takes to reunite passengers with lost luggage, we are a long way from the end of this crisis.

For teachers, the decision to play a role in hastening that end is particularly fraught. We teach children whose parents support Donald Trump and his immigration policies. We teach alongside colleagues and administrators who feel that way, too. But there are compelling reasons for us to rise to this moment the way teachers always do—whether it’s by speaking up at a faculty meeting or shielding a child’s body with our own during a school shooting—when children need us to be their champions.

Here are three reasons for us to speak and act now on their behalf:

1. We know firsthand what trauma can do to a child.

When we open our arms to a classroom of young children each fall, we know we risk our hearts being broken. Our students deal with adversity we wish we could shield them from—everything from homelessness to neglect and abuse.

Childhood trauma is so heartbreaking because it can poison not only a child’s past, but her future. Ten years ago, I had a 7-year-old child in my class who had experienced horrific sexual abuse. Her teachers, counselor, school nurse, and principal did everything we could to meet her many needs and show her she was loved. We kept in close contact with her new principal when she went on to middle school, then junior high, to make sure we kept the waters from closing over her head. But this year, we learned she had run away from home and was found in a house where teenaged girls were being trafficked. Scars of that early trauma did not fade with time.

One of the cruelest things you can do to a child is take her from a loving parent. Child psychologists and pediatricians have warned of the long-term consequences of these separations, well beyond the initial sobbing, terror, and withdrawal that have already been documented in the detention centers. These long-term effects—“future depression, anxiety and PTSD, substance abuse and difficulty forming relationships down the line,” as a psychologist told Time magazine—are the same afflictions we see in our work with children who have been broken, often at a very young age, by things no child should have to experience.

We have to speak firsthand to what that trauma can mean for young children. Whether you’re talking with your neighbors, debating at a tense family dinner, writing a letter to your local paper, or calling your elected officials (202-224-3121 will connect you with your Senator or Representative), teachers are in a unique position to speak to the long-term damage caused by childhood trauma. We have to keep advocating until every child who was taken is back in the arms of those who love them most.

2. We bring the whole world into our classrooms.

Part of what I love about teaching is that a classroom is its own tiny cosmos. Within those walls, we can create an oasis of compassion, respect, and equality.

At the same time, the great teachers I know don’t shrink from talking about the world outside those walls, however politically charged or jarring current events might be. The 2014 National Teacher of the Year, Sean McComb, described on Facebook conversations he has been having with his high school students.

Every year my students read Night, a Holocaust memoir by Elie Wiesel. Many students are captivated by a question that lies outside the direct focus of the text: How did so many “normal” Germans come to go along with these atrocities?

Those Germans came to devalue the humanity of the group that was made “other.” They dehumanized them. That happens through fear, through propaganda, through scapegoating, through a slippery slope of small moral compromises.

It is happening to us right now. We can’t justify human rights abuses—wrestling children from their parents and putting them in detention centers—because it is legal. The Nazis passed laws that allowed them to criminalize Jewish people. The Holocaust was legal.

The way we bring up these issues has everything to do with the age of the children we teach. But kids know more about what is happening right now than we might hope. During the first week of the family separations, my son called out to me at 3:00 a.m. When I crawled into his bed, he wrapped his arms around me and held on tight for a long time before falling back asleep. He told me, “I had a nightmare that you fell off a cliff. You were walking in the fog, and you didn’t know it was there until you fell.”

The children in our care will have questions, big emotions, and their own opinions about what is happening to families seeking entry or political asylum along our border. We have to do better than tell them, “We don’t talk about that in school. Now, back to our lesson on Japanese-American internment camps during World War II …"

3. We know what a profound act of trust it is for a parent to leave her son or daughter, even for a single day.

In response to the crisis at the border, newly elected Arkansas State Representative Nicole Clowney wrote on Facebook:

You know that feeling when you leave your kid at daycare and they don’t want you to go? You know they’ll be safe with their teachers who love them. Teachers who will play with them, and read to them, and comfort them when they scrape their knees. And yet, your heart breaks—you can actually feel it in your chest—because your child is crying and begging for you not to go. That feeling is all I can think about tonight, as I try, and fail, to sleep.

We have to speak for parents who have been separated from their children against their will, for weeks rather than hours, with no idea where their children are—let alone any assurance that their needs are being met.

These mothers, fathers, and children from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and other nations are no less human than the children and families we serve in our classrooms every day. When a young child is taken from a mother or father seeking political asylum, it feels exactly the way it would feel if our own son or daughter were taken from us.

Our profession has long championed the rights of children who receive far less than they deserve from adults whose consciences have failed them. Now a time has come when the most fundamental right of a child, to remain with those who have loved her from the time she was born, has been broken.

Teachers are entrusted with a sacred obligation: making certain that all children have the chance to live the lives they dream of. Tonight, 2,000 children will again sob themselves to sleep, longing for their mothers’ and fathers’ arms, still terrified and alone. We are the keepers of their dreams.

For simple actions you can take to ensure children are reunited with their parents, read this list: What You Can Do Right Now to Help Immigrant Families Separated at the Border.

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