Undocumented People Aren’t a Threat to Communities. They Are Our Communities.

Sep 13, 2017 12:00:00 AM

by Jessica Cuellar

Teachers returning to the classroom across the country carry a heavy burden of explaining the unexplainable. Students will have hard questions about the horrific events of the summer, from the Charlottesville protests to Hurricane Harvey. And for me, one of the hardest things to explain to my students will be the end of DACA—the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program—and how it will force more than 800,000 young people back into the shadows. Ending DACA not only allows deportations of children who have called the United States home their entire lives, it interferes with their ability to learn while they are here. But as students come to us for answers, teachers should tell them that the fight is not over. Educators—the teachers, principals, paraprofessionals, and counselors who work with students every day—must speak up loud and clear for the rights of undocumented students. As a Mexican-American teacher in Southern California, I know the issues facing immigrant students— documented and undocumented alike. I have witnessed the dreaded experienced by my undocumented students and their families, students coming into school too scared about ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raids to focus on reading “Maniac Magee,” and families avoiding school events and parent-teacher conferences out of fear that they will be targets of immigration authorities. I have personally had mothers crying in my office, terrified that their families will be torn apart or forced to leave the country. Then, in 2012, [pullquote]I witnessed what DACA could do for our families.[/pullquote] The thought of this blessing vanishing shakes me to the core.

Standing Up In and Outside the Classroom

Teachers must stand up for their students both in and outside the classroom. I have given my students the opportunity to discuss and express their feelings towards social injustice, whether that may be through art, poetry, writing or advocacy. Students are learning to research and engage in critical dialogue while finding their voice as advocates. And I empower my students to find ways they can support their community. This year, my fifth-graders will experience an entire unit about social awareness, where they will collectively develop an advocacy plan around an issue. In previous years, my students organized community clean-ups and educated their peers in younger grades. Social justice education and advocacy is integral to my classroom and student learning. And after this disturbing summer, it is also a way for teachers to lift up their students who may feel alienated and disrespected. However, it is the adults in their school who must amplify students’ voices and raise them to reach those with the power to enact change. One teacher may struggle to bring about systemic change, but educators can effectively work together to change the policies that affect their students. We must leverage our expertise and position to change the policies that affect our students. From CEOs to leaders in government and faith groups, authorities from diverse fields are sharing how ending DACA hurts our nation. Teachers must do the same. DACA’s repeal will greatly affect school climate, absenteeism and academic performance for our young students. President Trump should heed the voices of teachers, 1,200 of whom signed a letter demanding that DACA protections remain in place. As experienced educators, [pullquote position="right"]we know undocumented people do not pose a threat to our communities—they are our communities.[/pullquote] And we must defend them. Those who believe the DACA program must end should know that few DACA-eligible people can remember any other home. DACA has enabled children to attend college, work lawfully, and contribute to our economy and communities. Provisional protections like DACA are certainly not perfect, but in the face of the threats of mass deportations, we must protect the victories we have. That is why we must support enduring solutions as well as temporary fixes. Teachers do so much for their students every day. As we go back into the classroom for a new school year, we will continue to work to make our students feel safe and welcomed. And we will continue to raise our voices as educators and leaders in our country to keep DACA and find solutions that are compassionate—solutions that will make our children proud.

Jessica Cuellar

Jessica Cuellar is a special education teacher at Community Charter Elementary School in Sylmar, California and a member of the Educators for Excellence DACA Teacher Action Team.

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