ICE Took My Students’ Parents Away

In my classroom there is a poster that says, “Follow your dreams, believe in yourself and never give up.” This poster is more than some frivolous decoration—it’s our mantra and our story. The hopes and dreams of my students live within a 55-minute block of reading language arts. I am their teacher. I am their keeper of dreams. I am their bearer of hope. Then there are days when I can’t seem to do anything or say anything that would make a student’s circumstance right or promise them a positive outcome. Days when the hope we’ve been building all year is suddenly driven out by fear—the fear of being identified as undocumented or that someone in their family will be discovered as undocumented. They are scared of being “sent away,” or worse, left behind.


This fear became a reality a couple of weeks ago when students were signed out en masse only to be told that one or both parents had been taken by immigration authorities. It wasn’t until that day that I truly understood the depravity of this fear. I sat in a gym with a number of families who were barely holding onto their dreams as they had been separated from their loved ones by an ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raid at a local factory. I sat with a former student as he shared how he was doing in high school, how the soccer team was doing this season and how he still had dreams of going to college. All of this was happening as he was living in his biggest nightmare. He was waiting to see if the men in black vests and hats holding his mother at the National Guard Armory would release her. He said, “Mr. Voiles, look at all these teachers, community members and Hispanic families coming together. Isn't this what it’s supposed to be like? Isn't this what we read about and talked about in your class? People coming together for the common good—coming together in love for one another—why can’t the world be like this?” As we sat there and talked, he faced his worst nightmare—losing a parent. Over the next hour a few individuals were gradually released, one by one. Every time a new detainee would walk through the door of the gym, he would stand on the bleachers to see over the crowd, looking for his mother. At one point he grabbed my shoulder and yelled, “Mr. Voiles, that’s my mom. That’s my mom!” He ran toward his mother with tears rolling down his face. Luckily, this student was reunited with his mother. His nightmare was interrupted, but this new reality is far from living his dreams. I arrived at school the next day and I called roll like an ordinary morning. But that morning was not ordinary. The difference was what happened when I called out the names of my Hispanic students. For many of them, there was no response. Silence. I paused—now imagining my classroom without them—imagining my America without them. They, too, are America—they are the hopes and dreams of our future. What will happen to the dreams of my students?
Derek Voiles is the 2017 Tennessee Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year.

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