By Christian Welch, Medill, Immigrant Connect
*Some names have been changed to avoid retribution from school districts.
In the month leading up to the 2016 presidential election, the halls of one suburban Texas high school were ringing with debates over which candidate should be the leader of the free world. Regardless of students’ political beliefs, it was clear that the prevailing mood was fear for the future of the country, no matter the outcome of election night. The day after the election, the school’s U.S. History team of teachers scrapped their lesson plans and let the students debate the outcome, with two rules in place: “Be respectful and keep it clean.”
In Sophia Perkins’ last class of the day, a particularly distraught student stayed behind and missed her bus to talk about her concerns. The student had friends and family who were undocumented and she was afraid of losing them.
“She couldn’t understand how we teach ‘give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…’ and then elect a man who is so bent on sending her friends and her family, who escaped tired and poor, away.” Perkins said.
Changes in immigration policy have turned the lives of immigrants upside down as they struggle to understand the new policies. Immigrants, both documented and undocumented, are uncertain of their rights and whether they will be deported. Immigrant communities have been plagued with fear since Trump’s inauguration and fear can have debilitating effects on students. Children struggle to make sense of the policy changes. Schoolwork has taken a backseat to fear and anxiety over possible deportation.
Public school teachers in two cities with large immigrant populations – Chicago and this Texas suburb – had to find ways to ease the fears of their students. Opposing political climates led to different approaches in the two school districts. Politics notwithstanding, teachers regarded helping their students as their priority.
Despite all of the things Perkins wanted to say to her student, she restrained herself and stuck to what her school district requires – a policy she believes to be true – that teachers should not let their personal beliefs inform their students’ search for knowledge.
Chicago public school teachers have taken a different approach to immigration issues, and students seem to have a different reaction to the Trump administration. While one Texas teacher, Robert Suarez**, reported no sign of tears in his classroom, Fanny Diego-Alvarez of Enlace Chicago says that kids were breaking down in class throughout Chicago.
“Teachers need people to come talk to students,” Alvarez said. “They don’t know how to continue with class when students are breaking down in class because of immigration.”
The difference in students’ reactions in Chicago and Texas may be attributed to the media coverage around deportation and to the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Rebecca Martinez, an organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union, said many parents were afraid to send their kids to school because they didn’t know if it was safe. CTU has pushed the school district to keep parents informed of their policies in dealing with ICE.
In Texas, teachers have no guidance on what to do if ICE were to show up on campus, Suarez said. Communities and schools are not talking about ICE, so it is possible the threat didn’t seem as imminent to Texas students. Even media coverage of sweeps by ICE didn’t t get much attention, Suarez said. But just because students weren’t crying at their desks, doesn’t mean they weren’t afraid.
Fear and anxiety over uncertain status can be terrorizing itself. The student, an Iraqi refugee, spent years in a refugee camp and the fear of having to go back to Iraq made him suicidal, Suarez said. He struggles, without district initiatives, to help his student deal with his anxiety over possible deportation, Suarez said.
Chicago schools have tried to address the mental health issues that students developed since Trump’s inauguration. A drop in attendance, especially of Hispanic students, has complicated the issue. The schools try to offer counseling for all the students who are experiencing fear and anxiety, but their resources are limited. It is hard to build a relationship and make progress when kids aren’t coming to school, Martinez said.
While Suarez hadn’t noticed a drop in attendance at his school, one of his students had to drop out because of Trump’s new policies. The Iranian immigrant has a sick grandmother and the student’s mother is going back to Iran to take care of her. His student wasn’t sure if her mother would be able to return to the U.S. so she dropped out of school to work full time. She wants to ensure her family can stay afloat in case her mom can’t come back, Suarez said.
There has been a significant drop in attendance in Chicago since Trump’s inauguration, with rumors of drops in enrollment. People were afraid to send their kids to school because of community violence but also because of concerns about ICE, Martinez said.
Safety concerns were validated the day after the election in another Texas school. While Suarez reported a small protest at his school, Plano East Senior High School began the day with threatening images drawn on the sidewalk. A chalk drawing of a wall with the words “build that wall” written underneath was scrawled on the sidewalk between buildings. Multiple students at the school reported peers pulling at their hijabs the day after the election.
Chicago students have organized themselves and mobilized protests over Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric. In addition to participating in the Day Without Immigrants protest, students have organized their own protests. Shortly after the election, students from Bowen High School on the southeast side of Chicago staged a walkout to protest racism against immigrants and minority groups.
Chicago teachers also mobilized to help inform and protect their students and their families. There is concern from parents about whether Chicago schools are safe from ICE. To help parents get more informed, the Chicago Teachers Union pushed CPS to release a statement regarding its policies relating to ICE, Martinez said. Parents need more information about specific policies to keep themselves and their children safe. CPS released a written statement telling parents that ICE is not allowed inside the school unless they have a warrant, Martinez said. This doesn’t mean that ICE can’t be outside the schools, Martinez said. There has not been much effort from school to increase protection from ICE.
When the Trump administration started increasing deportations, teachers didn’t know what to do. Now, they are trying to get informed about how to help undocumented students, Martinez said. A CPS high school held a “know your rights” training for students, and many teachers attended, she said. Those teachers took the information and made fliers to spread the word around to people in the neighborhood, she said.
Since Texas teachers are encouraged to keep their personal beliefs out of the classroom, Perkins’ team of U.S. History teachers have tried to ease the minds of their students by instilling faith in the country’s Constitution.
As the buses were pulling out of the parking lot, Perkins explained to her distraught student that the Constitution has proven itself over the years and it has insured that any policy put in place has check and balances, she said.
“I told her that one person can’t build or destroy our country,” Perkins said. “I explained to her that at the end of it all, we are a country of individuals who take care of each other and grow together no matter how uncomfortable it is.”
In this day and age, when facts are skewed and lies are rampant, knowledge of course is power, and it may be up to teachers to empower immigrant students to quell their fear and anxiety, so students can focus on their education.