Hundreds of educators protested the United States’ treatment of immigrant children in a “teach-in” on Sunday, saying that as mandatory reporters, they are obliged to speak out against detainment and family separations.
The teach-in, held in El Paso, Texas, was organized by Mandy Manning, the 2018 National Teacher of the Year, who teaches newly arrived refugee and immigrant students in Washington state. Educators from Mexico and across the U.S.—the goal was one from every state—joined for a day of speeches, songs, and lessons on immigration. Former U.S. Secretary of Education John King and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten were also there to speak.
“I think that as an educator particularly, any time a kid comes into my classroom—any child from wherever they are, whoever they are, wherever they were born, or who their family is—I love them and welcome them and see the endless potential in them,” Manning said in an interview. “I don’t really see [this event] as political. I see it as demanding that we treat everyone with dignity and respect and honor them and welcome them.”
Teachers are mandatory reporters, meaning they’re required under U.S. law to report suspected child abuse to authorities. Manning said she can’t remain silent about the fate of immigrant children who have been detained by U.S. immigration authorities. Last year, the Trump administration began enforcing a “zero tolerance” immigration policy, which led to about 3,000 children being separated from their parents or other adults who had accompanied them in crossing the border. Those children were detained in federal detention facilities.
Many believed the separation was tantamount to child abuse, since trauma can cause lasting psychological damage. Trump reversed the policy in June after public outcry, and a federal judge ordered all separated children be reunited with a parent. But a government report released in January said that the exact number of children still separated from their families is “unknown.” Two migrant children have died in U.S. custody—a 7-year-old girl and an 8-year-old boy, both from Guatemala.
“Teaching what I teach and knowing what I know about our immigrant community and how much they bring into our communities, both economically and socially, it was appalling to me what was happening,” Manning said. “I felt really helpless because I thought, ‘I have this really great platform, how do I use it appropriately to talk about what’s happening, and to help people understand that this is a huge human rights violation, and it’s abuse, and we need these kids to be in our classrooms.’”
Those feelings led to the teach-in. The teachers have three main demands: that immigrant children in U.S. custody remain together with their families, be held in smaller residential settings rather than institutional facilities, and be released to their sponsors within 20 days. Children should also receive six hours of classroom instruction, with the appropriate language services, each school day, they say. (That’s also mandated by Department of Health and Human Services policy.)
Manning said she hopes this becomes a movement, rather than a one-day event. Teachers, she said, will not stop until all children are safe.
Ivonne Orozco, the 2018 New Mexico Teacher of the Year, who also helped organize the teach-in, said teachers prepare children to be productive citizens—and that often means speaking out about what’s going on in the world.
“When a community is wondering what to do, what to think, they often turn to the first person in power and authority that they can find, and those people are often teachers,” she said. “So when teachers stand up and say, ‘This is what we believe in. This is what we know is right,’ it matters for our communities because we are sending the message of inclusion.”
The teach-in was originally slated to be held outside the Tornillo temporary detention facility, which held up to 2,800 migrant childen. But the shelter closed last month, so Manning moved the teach-in to El Paso, which is separated from Mexico by a border wall. President Donald Trump recently gave a speech there to push for border wall funding.
“I see the closing of Tornillo as the beginning because it shows that our government has the ability and the capacity to close these facilities,” Manning said, adding that there are still several more detention facilities holding children. “There’s a lot of work to do, and Tornillo just proves that it can be done.”
Manning has been outspoken in her support for immigrant rights. When she met Trump at the White House last May, Manning gave him a stack of letters from her immigrant students. (She also wore buttons supporting women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and other political causes in a silent rebuke.)
In some of the letters, students shared their path to the United States with the president. Others were more “pointed” with advice, Manning said: One young woman from an African country wrote that other students were using Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric against immigrants in the hallways. “She said that there are very real consequences for the president’s language, because he’s representative for other people and a model,” Manning said.
Orozco, the 2018 New Mexico Teacher of the Year, immigrated from Mexico as a child and then received protection from deportation through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
“If it wasn’t for these policies of giving Dreamers an opportunity to work, I would have never been teacher of the year,” Orozco said. “When we have these policies of incarcerating children, we are taking away that potential. We’re taking away that future that they can have.”
Education Week Correspondent Kavitha Cardoza reported from El Paso. Photos by Kavitha Cardoza.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.